Tennessee has typically ranked so low in measures of social well-being lately that it’s important to call attention to any success. And that’s just what has occurred in children’s health.
This week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its annual Kids Count report, which assesses the well-being of children nationwide and state by state. This year, the report adopted a different methodology. So while it makes it difficult to measure this year’s results to previous years, it’s important to know that the new evaluation formula appears to be a more balanced approach to gauging what matters in the lives of children.
This year, Tennessee ranked 36th overall in child well-being, based on four domains: health; economic well-being; education; and family and community. While our state hovered in the low 30s to 40s in the latter three categories, it ranked 16th in child health. Under this domain, researchers looked at data on low-birthweight babies; children without health insurance; child and teen deaths; and teens who abuse alcohol or drugs.
Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, attributes this to “good public policies” and “investing in Tennessee’s children.” And for that, we must give credit to the administrations of Gov. Bill Haslam and Phil Bredesen before him.
Haslam, for example, found a way to continue the Coordinated School Health program begun under his predecessor after it had been targeted for budget cuts. Keeping an eye on what should be the state’s top priorities has served Tennessee well, and offers hope for the future.
There is a downside. Tennessee and the nation overall saw a decline in children’s economic well-being. Researchers looked at the number of kids whose parents lack secure employment; children in households with a high housing cost; and number of teens not in school and not working. Our state ranked 38th; perhaps to be expected since Tennessee has struggled for some time with a low per capita income and lower-paying jobs overall. This is certainly an area where public policies could be better shaped around programs to retrain unemployed adults for new jobs, and to ensure that teens finish school.
In Tennessee, the economic ranking is directly affected by a third domain: education. Kids Count rated our state only 42nd in this vital area — a sign that despite all the reforms that have been made to public education here, we still have a long way to go. In all four areas of the education domain — number of children not attending preschool; fourth-grade reading proficiency; eighth-grade math proficiency; and high schoolers not graduating on time — Tennessee lags.
Tennessee fares a bit better (39th) in family and community measures: the number in single-parent families; in families where the head of household lacks a high school diploma; whether kids live in high-poverty areas; and the rate of teen births. In teen births in particular, our state has made some significant improvements recently, following a national trend.
We celebrate how Tennessee has risen to make children’s health a priority in its communities. Guardedly, we hope to see improvement soon in tackling this state’s most fundamental problem: education.