New Jersey leads the nation in education and has improved the health of its children, but economic factors continue to hold the state back, according to the latest Kids Count report.
The 2018 Kids Count Data Book was released Wednesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and ranks states based on health, economic well-being, education, and community and family.
Alana Vega, the Kids Count coordinator for Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said while New Jersey’s numbers are good, there is always room for improvement.
“Fifty-one percent of fourth-graders are not proficient in reading. Fifty-six percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in math,” Vega said. “That’s something that we as a state can improve on.”
Vega said New Jersey historically performed well in education, but middle-of-the-pack with economic well-being. She said that is in part due to high housing costs across the state, although that is also improving.
“As we know, throughout the coast, housing costs are expensive. It definitely contributes to some housing instability,” she said.
In 2016, 15 percent of children in New Jersey lived in poverty, a 1-point increase from 2010. Nationally, that percentage has decreased in the same time period from 22 percent to 19 percent.
“New Jersey’s first place ranking in education reflects the state’s continued investment in giving children a strong start, but far too many families continue to struggle to make ends meet,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “Though we are certainly showing continued gains for our children, New Jersey can do better to ensure that all children, regardless of their family’s income, are able to grow and thrive.”
The Kids Count shows New Jersey is improving in health, moving up from fourth to third in the nation with fewer babies with low birth weights and fewer children without health insurance than in 2010. There are also fewer child and teen deaths and fewer teens who abuse alcohol and drugs than the national rates.
Additionally, the Kid Count shows teen births are down tremendously from the previous year. However, there are more children in single-parent families and more children living in high poverty areas than previously.
Vega said this year, the Kids Count highlights the importance of the upcoming 2020 Census.
“It’s estimated that 148,000 children under 5 live in hard-to-count Census tracts in New Jersey alone. That’s about 28 percent,” Vega said.
According to the Kids Count Data Book, the Census historically disproportionately undercounts children of color as well as kids in low-income and immigrant families.
Vega said this affects federal funding programs tied to Census figures including Title I, National School Lunch, SNAP and Medicaid.
“It’s really important that we’re sending a message that families be counted and they need to make sure that their children are counted,” Vega said.
Hard-to-count Census tracts are those areas where in previous Census years fewer than 73 percent of houses responded. Why the residents there didn’t respond is complicated, Vega said, and can be everything from improperly numbered homes to respondents forgetting or being too busy to respond.
Zalkind added if the 2020 Census is inaccurate, New Jersey will have to live with that for another 10 years.
“And because New Jersey is an incredibly diverse state with children from a variety of backgrounds, an inaccurate census count could cause thousands of children to miss out,” Zalkind said.