Big areas of improvement are needed in South Jersey counties on child well-being if they are ever to catch up to their northern neighbors, new data show.
Advocates for Children of New Jersey’s Kids Count County Rankings, released Tuesday, indicated that outcomes for children vary greatly depending on the ZIP code they live in. While efforts in South Jersey are making some headway, significant gaps remain.
“We hope local, county and state leaders, as well as the general public, will use this comprehensive data book to identify areas of concern and develop solutions to improve the lives of children in their own backyard,” Cecilia Zalkind, Advocates president and CEO, said in a statement.
The rankings compare all counties on 12 measures of child well-being and across four domains — economics, health, safety and well-being, and education — to look at how children were doing in specific regions of the state.
While northern and central counties such as Bergen, Essex, Hunterdon, Morris, Ocean and Somerset took some of the top spots in several domains, Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Passaic and Salem lagged at the bottom.
Cumberland ranked last or near-last in all four areas of child well-being, according to the report, with one of the largest populations of children living below the poverty level (25 percent) in 2016, the most babies born with low birth weight (10 percent) and highest rate of teens not working or not attending school (12 percent).
“Cumberland children had the highest rates of students not graduating high school on time, missing too much school and not passing third-grade English Language Arts PARCC exams,” Zalkind said.
While the county has consistently struggled to obtain progress seen in neighboring counties, it did improve in some areas. Cumberland, following a state trend, saw a decrease in juvenile arrests, from 938 in 2012 to 582 in 2016.
Ocean County succeeded in several areas, namely ranking first in child health and third in safety and well-being for the number of children under age 6 who got blood lead tested in 2016 (26 percent), low uninsured rates (1.5 percent), decrease in juvenile arrests and low numbers of teens not in school (4 percent).
Despite high performance in other measures, the county still saw about half its residents spend more than 30 percent of income on rent and 19 percent of children living in families below the federal poverty level. The report also showed an increase in child abuse and neglect cases from 2012 to 2016.
Atlantic and Cape May counties varied greatly on where they ranked. Overall, the two counties did well in child health, ranking 12th and eighth respectively, but the report indicates there needs to be more done to improve in family economics, safety and well-being and education.
Bright spots in Atlantic County showed the percentage of children without health insurance was reduced by nearly half and fewer babies had a low birth weight in 2016 than in 2012.
There was also a 14 percent increase in median income, from about $54,000 in 2012 to $61,300 in 2016, a turbulent time for Atlantic City and casino employment. In 2017, the county’s unemployment rate (7.2 percent) still exceeded the statewide average.
Cape May County had the highest unemployment rate, at 9.1 percent in 2017, and the highest percentage of children with reported cases of child abuse or neglect, at 15.2 percent in 2016.
The county did well, however, in having the lowest percentage of babies with low birth weights (6 percent), a low uninsured rate at just 2.9 percent and at least half of third-graders meeting or exceeding expectations on the English Language Arts PARCC exams.
“However, the county ranked near the bottom for its low lead-testing rate,” Zalkind said. “We hope that these county profiles will encourage community leaders to see these data and implement changes that will target resources and help improve the lives of the children in Cape May County.”
For the complete County Rankings, see acnj.org