More children are in poverty today than before the Great Recession

One out of five American children live in poverty, and we have the Great Recession to blame.

That’s according to a new report out today from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that tracks the overall well-being of children in the United States.

Today, 22 percent of children live in poverty, up from 18 percent in 2008.

Despite policies and programs designed to help families recover, the economic slowdown left many families behind, said Laura Speer. She is the foundation’s associate director for policy reform and advocacy and oversees the national KIDS COUNT project.

“It’s pretty clear from the data that the rising tide of economic recovery has not lifted all boats,” Speer said. “We still haven’t made up ground of where we were pre-recession” for many low-income families.

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Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation

Minnesota led the United States in children’s overall well-being, followed by New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It’s the first time in nearly a decade that a state outside of New England has ranked first nationwide.

Minnesota has one of the lowest rates of uninsured children in the country.

The state also maintains ongoing early childhood education programs that focus on school readiness and provides childcare assistance, says Stephanie Hogenson, research and policy director at the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota.

At a time when economic crisis gripped the nation, and when many states cut social welfare programs in a desperate attempt to manage budget deficits, Minnesota preserved many of these programs designed to help low-income individuals and families, such as providing tax-credits, raising the minimum wage and increasing childcare assistance, Hogenson said.

Also, the economic slowdown did not hit the Upper Midwest as hard overall as it did rest of the country, Speer said.

In Minnesota, roughly one out of seven children live in poverty.

“It points to a long-term history of investment in kids,” Speer said. “It takes a while, but you can see those investments in our rankings eventually.”

At the bottom is Mississippi, where the child-poverty rate is a staggering one in three. It fell behind Louisiana and New Mexico.

“The states at the very top and very bottom are very far apart, and they always have been,” Speer said. “There’s been improvement in Mississippi, but the problem is that the improvement hasn’t kept up with other states.”

For this report, researchers collected nationally representative and state-based data from 2008 to 2013, the last year when data was available.

Then, they created a composite score of children’s overall quality of life measured across four domains: economic well-being, education, health and stability of family and community. Within each domain are four indicators, such as absence of pre-school attendance or teen births per capita. Of the 16 total indicators combined, Speer said one carries more influence than any other: child poverty.

That is because child poverty is so closely linked with indicators such as low birthweight, single-parent families, low-income housing and neighborhoods, Speer explained. These indicators signal the likelihood for success or failure throughout a child’s development.

Since 1990 when the Casey Foundation first released its report, Mississippi has remained at the bottom every year except one, says Linda Southward. She studies families and children at Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center and directs Mississippi KIDS COUNT.

“The fact that Mississippi is so much lower than the rest of the country on these measures, Mississippi would have to make tremendous gains on these measures to rise in the rankings,” she said.

For Mississippi to improve the overall well-being for all of its children, Southward said, the state must make long-term investments. She suggested continued efforts to ramp up early childhood education and uniform screening methods that would alert teachers to a child’s unique learning needs.

“We need to be strategic about it, and we need to be consistent,” Southward said.

As a public elementary school teacher in the Mississippi Delta, Ashley Mostaghimi saw firsthand what happens when children grow up without having basic needs met. She arrived in Mississippi in 2005 as a Teach for America instructor from North Carolina. The Mississippi Delta was her first choice.

“This is the only place I wanted to go. I don’t know if I quite grasped the level of challenge for children and teachers,” she said.

Rural isolation and abject poverty were no longer abstract concepts when she began teaching in Mississippi. Her students hadn’t seen skyscrapers or museums, and the only airplanes they’d ever seen were cropdusters.

She taught a student whose only guaranteed meal each day was a school-provided lunch. She learned to keep a stash of granola bars at her desk for him.

The state and its children are not without hope, said Mostaghimi, who later in 2009 earned a master’s degree in education policy and management from Harvard and continued to teach and recommend best practices to schools in the Mississippi Delta.

“We have a great amount of opportunity in Mississippi, because we are small,” Mostaghimi said. “The level of impact we can have with one charter school, with one principal, with one superintendent is incredible compared to a big city.”

But she acknowledges that the state has a long way to go.

“You have children who come to school in kindergarten who have never held a book before,” she said, “because their parents can’t afford it, and there is no library where they live.”