Tom Smart, Deseret News
Child well-being is strongly related to higher state taxes and robust entitlement programs, according to a study published Wednesday by The Foundation for Child Development.
The report, called "Investing in Public Programs Matters: How State Policies Impact Children's Lives," took an in-depth look at children's cognitive, emotional, social and economic health then compared the results to state tax rates and policies. Overall, researchers observed, the most well-off children live in states that have higher state and local taxes, higher Medicaid child-eligibility thresholds and higher levels of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits.
Utah, though, bucks the trend. According to the report, Utah ranks fourth in the nation for child well-being, but also boasts the second-lowest average per-child TANF benefit and has one of the lowest thresholds for Medicaid child eligibility.
Despite being ranked 35th for the proportion of children covered by public and private health insurance and 51st for education spending, Utah scored well overall because the state supports strong families and is economically prosperous, said Ruby Takanishi, president of The Foundation for Child Development, a New York-based nonprofit that supports research and policy development.
Fewer Utah children live in single parent homes than any other state, according to the report. More Utah children live in homes where at least one parent is employed year round than anywhere else in the nation.
"There is a relationship between state investments and the overall well-being of children," Takanishi said. "But that's not to say that families don't matter — because families matter. Utah is a perfect illustration of that fact."
Takanishi attributed Utah's high health marks to the influence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City. Utah has the lowest rates in the country for binge drinking and cigarette use among children ages 12 to 17, according to the report. The state ranked sixth for the percentage of children in "very good" or "excellent health," as reported by parents.
"We know that Mormon practices with respect to the drinking of alcohol and consuming of tobacco and eating of healthful foods is an important part of Utah's health status," she said.
Not all is well in the Beehive state, though, with cultural and religious influences in mind, Takanishi said she was surprised to note that Utah had the 19th highest rate babies born to teenagers. The state ranked low for reading and math scores (28th) and the percentage of young adults who obtain bachelor's degrees (32nd).
The federal government invests less than 10 percent of its budget in children's programs, so, for the most part, it's up to states to take care of the kids, Takanishi said. As a result, across the nation, American children are on unequal footing. Child well-being varies greatly among states.
"Where a child happens to be born makes a significant difference in their well-being and future prospects," Takanishi said. "The difference between Mississippi and Utah are so striking, it's hard to believe they are in the same country."
New Jersey ranked no. 1 for child well-being, according to the report, followed by Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Utah and Connecticut. In the bottom five were Nevada, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico.
Top-ranked New Jersey has the highest state and local tax rates in the country. The average per-child TANF benefit in New Jersey is $161, compared to $45 in New Mexico and $21 in Mississippi. The state insures all children living at 350 percent of the poverty level and spends more per student on education than any other state.
Overall, the 10 states with the best child well-being scores, including Utah, had state and local tax rates of 10 percent or higher. The middle ten averaged 9.5 percent and the bottom ten averaged 8.5 percent.
"This is a very important finding in the economic context in which we are now living," Takanishi said. "At at time when many of the basic essential services to children, particularly in health and education, are being reduced because of economic circumstances, it's important to note there is a relationship between state investments in children and their overall well-being."
Terry Haven, who conducts similar research on child well-being for the nonprofit Voices for Utah Children, said the study was a call to action.
"It's important to look at data to see how kids are doing so we know where to put our money," she said. "As we head toward another tough budget year we ought to be talking about children and families and what they need."
Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayer's Association concluded the opposite.
"What this study says about Utah is, first and foremost, that it is possible to have a good educational system and provide an environment that foster's child well-being without breaking the bank," he said. "We have more kids than any other state in the nation, but, at the same time, we are very tax payer friendly."
State rankings on child well-being
1) New Jersey
3) New Hampshire
50) New Mexico
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