Arkansas 43rd in latest Kids Count study of child well-being

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,485 views 

Arkansas ranked 43rd in the 2023 Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Book, which measures child well-being across four domains: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community.

The state ranked ahead of four of its adjoining states in this 34th edition of the study: Texas (44th), Oklahoma (46th), Mississippi (48th) and Louisiana (49th). Missouri was 28th and Tennessee was 36th.

New Hampshire ranked at the top, followed by Utah, Massachusetts, Vermont and Minnesota. New Mexico was 50th.

Arkansas ranked 37th in the report’s education domain. Seventy percent of the state’s fourth-graders were not proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2022, compared to 69% in 2019. That was slightly worse than the national averages of 68% in 2022 and 66% in 2019.

Third-grade reading proficiency is considered a reliable indicator of future academic success. Under the LEARNS Act passed by legislators and signed by Gov. Sarah Sanders this year, third-graders who are not proficient in reading will not advance to the fourth grade. There will be exemptions, and the law also provides additional supports such as literacy tutors to help students reach proficiency.

The state slipped significantly in eighth grade math, with 81% of Arkansas students not proficient on the NAEP in 2022 compared to 73% in 2019. The national average of nonproficiency also grew from 67% not testing proficient in 2019 to 74% in 2022.

The 74% figure was the worst in two decades. The report noted that half of the 16 indicators across the four domains worsened nationally since before the COVID-19 pandemic, while four stayed the same and four improved. Three of the four indicators in education worsened. The report said the pandemic “erased decades worth of progress that the nation had made in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math proficiency.”

Among the other two indicators related to education, Arkansas had a better percentage of students not graduating high school on time in 2019-20, 11%, than the national average of 14%. The study defined “on time” as within four years after entering their freshman year. The state’s rate improved from 12% from the year before, while the national average remained the same. The report cautioned that graduation data may not be comparable across time due to the pandemic.

The report listed one other indicator in education, the percentage of children ages 3 and 4 who were not in school the previous three months. In Arkansas, 56% of children those ages fit that category in 2017-21, compared to 52% in 2012-16. Nationally, the percentage increased slightly from 53% to 54%.

The state ranked 40th in the economic well-being domain, with 22% of its children, or 155,000, living in poverty in 2021, the same percentage as in 2019. The national averages were 17% both years. The report defines poverty as living in a family with an income below 100% of the U.S. poverty threshold as defined by the Census Bureau. For a family of two adults and two children in 2021, that income was $27,479.

Among other economic well-being indicators, the percentage of Arkansas children whose parents lack secure employment rose from 29% in 2019 to 30% in 2021. Nationally, the percentage rose from 26% to 29%. The indicator is defined as children under age 18 living in families where no parent has regular, full-time employment year-round.

The percentage of Arkansas children in households with a high housing cost burden rose from 22% in 2019 to 25% in 2021. The national average remained at 30%. A high burden was defined as a household where more than 30% of monthly pretax income is spent on housing expenses.

The percentage of Arkansas teens not in school and not working rose from 7% in 2019 to 10% in 2021. Nationally, the percentage increased from 6% to 7%.

Arkansas ranked 42nd in the health domain. Six percent of the state’s children did not have health insurance in 2021, the same as in 2019. That was slightly worse than the national average of 5% in 2021, which dropped from 6% in 2019. The study said that 43,000 Arkansas children and 4,165,000 children across the United States lacked health insurance in 2021.

The state saw 39 deaths per 100,000 young people between ages 1 and 19 in 2021, which was worse than the 35 it had in 2019. The numbers increased nationally as well, from 25 to 30. The report noted this national figure was the highest since 2007, with rising numbers of suicides, homicides, drug overdoses, deaths by firearms, and deaths by traffic accidents.

Arkansas fared worse than the national average in two other indicators in the health category. Its percentage of children and teens ages 10-17 who are overweight or obese rose from 34% in 2018-19 to 37% in 2020-21. The national average rose from 31% to 33%. Arkansas’ percentage of low birth-weight babies increased from 9.2% in 2019 to 9.5% in 2021. The national average rose from 8.3% to 8.5%.

The state fared the most poorly, 46th, in the family and community domain. The state’s rate of teen births of 27 per 1,000 was an improvement over the 30 per 1,000 in 2019. But the state averages were much higher than the national averages of 14 in 2021 and 17 in 2019.

Thirty-eight percent of Arkansas children, or 245,000 total, were living in single-parent families in 2021, which was up from 37% in 2019. The national average of 34% was unchanged from 2019 to 2021. For the study, children living with cohabitating couples were considered to be in single-parent families.

The state was faring better in 2021 compared to 2019 in the other two indicators in the family and community domain. Ten percent of Arkansas children were living in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma, compared to 11% in 2019. The national averages were 11% in 2021 and 12% in 2019. Eleven percent of Arkansas children were living in high-poverty areas in 2017-21, a significant improvement over 2012-16, when 16% were. The national numbers were 8% in 2017-21 and 13% in 2012-16. High poverty areas were defined as census tracts with 30% or more poverty rates.

The Kids Count Data Book includes a foreword by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s president and chief executive officer, Lisa Hamilton, saying the report points to the need for additional government investments in child care.

The report found the average annual cost to families for center-based child care for toddlers in Arkansas was $6,806. That amount equaled 25% of the median income of a single mother and 8% of the income made by a married couple with children. Only Mississippi was cheaper at $4,382.

For family- or home-based care for toddlers, the average cost in Arkansas was $5,482. That amount was 20% of the median income of single mothers and 6% of the median income of married couples with children. Only Louisiana ($5,454), South Dakota ($5,403), and Mississippi ($4,030) were cheaper.

The report found that 15% of Arkansas children were part of families who had undergone job changes due to child care problems.

Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families is the state’s Kids Count organization.