The 2013 ranking of "best and worst states to be a kid," formally titled Kids Count, has taken the country by surprise. For the first time in the long history of the annual study, Mississippi was not ranked at the bottom.
The map of state rankings is striking, in that it closely approximates the 2012 electoral map. Red states are ranked poorly. The liberal northeast is towards the top. Does the liberal northeast have a better quality of life, as this study would suggest? And what are the policy lessons to be learned from it?
The Kids Count data report is published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF). It measures child well-being through 16 different metrics.
The AECF is measuring "well-being," an attribute that is inherently subjective. Some of the metrics used to measure quality of life are straightforward (poverty rates and teen parenthood rates, for example).
Other metrics are not so straightforward, and demostrate a selection bias.
1. It is curious that the AECF measures birth weight, which may or may not have lasting effects on a child, instead of measuring obesity, which is not a one-time data point, but a proven sign of poor health habits over time.
2. The AECF makes a blatant mistake in using math and reading proficiency rates as a determinant of education quality. "Proficiency" standards are determined at the state level, not the federal. A child considered proficient in Tennessee might not be proficient in Massachusetts. In this way, the Kids Count study punishes states with higher education standards, and rewards those with lower standards.
3. It also makes the mistake of prioritizing job stability over job quality. By the AECF's measurement, a person with a minimum-wage job that they have kept for a year is considered better able to provide for children than a person with a six-figure salary who changed jobs recently.
4. The study measures how many kids have insurance, not how many kids actually see doctors.
The list goes on: Why no measure of crime rates? Why no measure of unemployment? What about adult illiteracy?
The premise of the study — that we can somehow predict a child's quality of life by looking at the state — is a liberal lie. There is more variation within states than without, and this variation is due to the first unit of government — the family in which a child is raised. (Perhaps this false premise is to be expected from an organization that grants large sums to both ACORN and the George Soros-funded Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
The states ranked at the top all have high rates of government spending in common. These states pay to insure more people. They subsidize preschools and subsidize housing so that the housing-cost burden is eased. Kids may benefit in the short term, but these programs are unsustainable. (Whether kids even benefit in the short term is a matter for debate. A kid who has insurance but never sees a doctor is considered to have a higher quality of life than an uninsured child who sees a doctor. In terms of education, it has been systematically disproven that higher per-pupil spending leads to higher test scores.)
A child's quality of life can hardly be predicted by looking at state government, but it's relatively easy to extrapolate from the first unit of government: the family. The behavior of the parents affects every single one of the 16 metrics measured by AECF. Parents decide where the kids will live, if the kids will go to preschool, if they'll have regular doctor check-ups, if the kids will be read to, and taught and pushed to succeed.
We could spend money we don't have to fund insurance for more kids, to fund more preschools, and so on. But none of that money will do any good unless a parent recognizes the value of such services, and takes the kid to preschool and to the doctor, and actively supports the child's learning. There is no government program that can make these things happen. Only inside the family, the first unit of government, can these changes take root.