Kids Count Data Book: Annual ranking puts Vermont third for child well-being

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MONTPELIER — Vermont is third in the nation when it comes to child well-being, according to a new Annie E. Casey Foundation report.

The annual Kids Count Data Book shows that Vermont has the lowest number of children living in highly impoverished areas. The state also has fewer uninsured children than other states. Only 1 percent are without health insurance, down by 50 percent since 2010. Nationally, 5 percent of children are uninsured.

The top ranking states are New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Minnesota and Iowa.

Vermont's spending on public education, health care and the economic safety net gives the state a head start, according to Sarah Teel, research director at Voices for Vermont Kids, the nonprofit organization.

"We do really well on most of the indicators that make up this ranking because we have historically had a very strong commitment to children in this state and have policies to support them and support working families," she said.

The study looked at trends over the past six years on 16 indicators in the categories of economic well being, education, health and family and community. Vermont scored No. 1 for family and community.

But Vermont's struggle with the high cost of housing and a lack of full time employment is dragging the state down in the ranking. Economic well-being is the only category the state failed to perform among the top five.

A third of Vermont children live in households that pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent or mortgage, and more than 25 percent children live with parents who do not have secure employment, according to the report.

"Housing is really expensive here," Teel said, and in Vermont, "parents often piece together employment rather than having a parent who works full time for 52 weeks."

Nationally, the child poverty rate continues to drop, more children have health insurance and are doing better on reading tests. That trend holds true in Vermont, too. Last year, 13 percent of children in the state were living in poverty. In 2010, 17 percent of Vermont children were classified as poor.

On both indicators, Vermont is doing a lot better than the national average, according to the report. The authors found "unacceptable levels of children living in poverty and in high poverty neighborhoods" nationally.

Even though there has been progress, the report states there is room for improvement in the Green Mountain state, particularly when it comes to economic well-being. "Fifteen thousand kids live below the poverty line, and almost a third of children are in households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing."

Researchers considered children in poverty if they lived in a four-person family with an income of $24,036 in 2015. The economic well-being category is the only one of the four that Vermont didn't make the top five ranking. On this indicator the state came in ninth in the nation.

Teel said that expensive housing and childcare are the top expenses for family budgets. "You can't cut corners in these areas so people squeeze their food budget or go without adequate transportation all of which affects kids in all kinds of ways," she said. "The less financially stable your family is the more unexpected things can impact you."

But progress can still be made and Vermont could shoot to the top five in economic well-being by investing in affordable housing, reducing the number of children living with high housing costs from 30 percent to 17 percent. Pediatricians have said that secure, adequately funded housing is important to the health and well-being of children, according to the study.

A more detailed state companion report called Whole Child Data Book goes further, advocating for good wages, access to child care, summer programming and flexible workplace policies.

Teel said it is really important to protect the progress the state has already made while continuing to improve, especially knowing many of the proposals in President Donald Trump's budget threaten programs that are working.

"These programs really protect kids from the worst deprivation and childhood is a very important time developmentally, mentally, there is no time in childhood when it is OK for children to suffer deprivation," she said.

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