Study: Despite improvements, South Carolina still ranks at the bottom in child well-being

The Kids Count rankings show that children’s health in South Carolina improved in the past year due to Obamacare providing access to insurance.

Despite making strides in child health, South Carolina still ranks near the bottom in overall child welfare, according to the Kids Count Data Book, an annual study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This year, the state ranked 42nd in the nation in child well-being, up from 45th in 2014 and 2013.

The foundation studies 16 different measures, delving into economic well-being, health care, education, and family and community issues as indicators of how safe it is to be a child.

South Carolina has never ranked higher than 42nd since the foundation launched the Kids Count project in 1990.

“I’m encouraged that we are moving up,” said Melissa Strompolis of Children’s Trust of South Carolina. “But I’m not sure I would call these very significant improvements. I would call them promising improvements, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

South Carolina was one of five states that made gains in the annual ranking, according to Children’s Trust, thanks largely to improvements in child health outcomes. The largest gain was made in children’s access to health care. Only 7 percent of South Carolina children lack health insurance, which is on par with the national average and down from 13 percent in 2008. Strompolis credits improvements in access to health care to the Affordable Care Act.

The percentage of low-weight babies also dropped — from 9.9 percent to 9.7 percent — as did the percentage of teens who abuse alcohol or drugs — from 7 percent to 6 percent. Child and teen deaths are down from 35 per 100,000 in 2008 to 26 per 100,000 in 2013. The teen birth rate in South Carolina also has fallen — from 51 per 1,000 in 2008 to 32 per 1,000 in 2013.

But South Carolina continues to lag behind the rest of the country according to other indicators. In education, where the state ranks 43rd nationally, statistics show the majority of children here are underperforming. Across the Palmetto State, 72 percent of fourth-graders are not proficient in reading, 69 percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in math and 59 percent of children are not attending preschool. Meanwhile, 28 percent of high school students are not graduating on time.

The statistics are even more alarming for children of color. Only 13 percent of African-American fourth- and eighth-graders are proficient in reading and math. And more than one-third of black students aren’t graduating from high school in four years.

These outcomes in health and education are intertwined with poverty, said Lisa Kirchner, CEO of FamilyCorps in North Charleston, and contribute to South Carolina’s low place in the yearly ranking. According to Kids Count, 27 percent of South Carolina children, or more than one in four, live in poverty. The number of children living in high-poverty areas increased from 12 during 2006-2010 to 15 percent during 2009-2013. Meanwhile, 31 percent of children have parents who lack secure employment and 42 percent live in single-parent families.

“The root causes of poverty are linked to lack of education, lack of jobs, lack of jobs paying livable wages, which is a huge stressor for a family,” she said. “People can’t work when they’re not healthy. That impacts productivity.”

The Kids Count ranking is based on 2013 data from the U.S. Census Bureau and American Community Survey. The top five states in the ranking in overall child well-being are Minnesota, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Iowa and Vermont. The five states at the bottom are Arizona, Nevada, Louisiana, New Mexico and Mississippi, which has ranked last every year, except 2013, when New Mexico dropped to 50th.

Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.