In Our View: Doing Right by Children

Data show state takes good care of its youngest citizens, but it could do better

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There are, of course, 50 states in the union — and a seemingly infinite number of ways for ranking them. Thrillist.com, for example, ranks states by the quality of their flags (Washington is No. 23). And Business Insider earlier this year ranked them by the success of their economy (We’re No. 1!).

Yet while this incessant comparing of states can range from informative to pointless, perhaps the most important rankings are those that assess the status of children. It is not simply a cliché to say that children are the future; it is an indication of a state’s long-term prospects for the prosperity and the health of its citizens. People who face difficult circumstances as children are more likely to be a burden on society as adults rather than productive and contributing residents. Children who grow up with little access to health care are more likely to develop poor habits or maladies that will be costly down the road.

So it is that we pay more attention to the Kids Count Data Book published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation than we do, say, HospitalSafetyScore.org‘s ranking of, er, um, hospital safety scores (Washington is No. 30). The latest Kids Count assessment was released Tuesday, and Washington ranked 15th in terms of how well the state cares for its youngest citizens. In the major categories examined, Washington ranks fifth in health; 17th in family and community; 22nd in education; and 26th in economic well-being.

When compared with data from 2007 and 2008, the state has made strong improvements in several notable categories: The percentage of children without health insurance; the percentage living in households with a high housing-cost burden; the percentage of students graduating high school on time; and births to teenage mothers. And while such improvements are notable, much work remains. Like many states in the wake of the Great Recession, Washington has seen increases in the percentage of children living in poverty and the percentage of those whose parents lack secure employment.

Improving economic conditions throughout the state is the most important factor in improving the lives of children. Nationwide economic insecurity over the past decade has created a climate that will hamper younger generations for decades and will help to entrench a cycle of poverty for many. So, maybe that Business Insider ranking of having the nation’s best economy is a good sign for the long-term health of the state’s children.

For Clark County specifically, according to information collected by the Kids Count Data Project, 17.4 percent of children under 18 were living in poverty in 2013 — slightly below the statewide mark of 18.6 percent. But Southwest Washington is hampered by having fewer adults holding a bachelor’s degree or higher when compared with the statewide average. Meanwhile, the percentage of households receiving food stamps in Clark County is higher than the state average.

As always, the thousands of numbers can be crunched in millions of ways to reveal different aspects of the state. The importance is to not get bogged down in the details but for policymakers to identify areas for improvement. For example, one area in which Washington declined in recent years was the percentage of young children in school — but recent legislative steps will help address that.

Overall, Washington is doing well by its children. And yet there is more to be done.