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Kentucky worsens, Indiana improves in national rankings on child well-being

Children are pictured walking down a hallway. Their faces are not visible. Some carry lunchboxes.
J. Tyler Franklin
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LPM
The 2023 Kids Count report examines how children in Kentucky, Indiana and other states are faring.

The Kids Count Data Book annually analyzes how children and their families are doing across the U.S. The 2023 report shows Kentucky got worse on more than half of the metrics it measures.

Kentucky fell in the 50-state ranking for overall child well-being to No. 40, down from No. 37 in the 2022 report. Indiana did better, rising from No. 28 to No. 24.

As part of its review, Kids Count — an initiative led by the Annie E. Casey Foundation — used the latest available data to examine 16 indicators of children’s well-being in each state.

Each of the 16 indicators fell into one of four categories: Economic Well-being, Family and Community, Education and Health.

Indiana ranked best in the education category, hitting No. 13 among all states. Kentucky did the best in education as well, coming in at No. 29.

The Bluegrass State ranked No. 40 or worse in the other three categories.

A multi-colored graphic shows how Kentucky ranked overall on child well-being, and how it ranked in four different subcategories.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation
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Kentucky Youth Advocates
This graphic shows how Kentucky measured up against America's other 50 states on different measures of child well-being in the latest Kids Count report.

Kentucky Youth Advocates partners with the foundation on Kids Count. Its executive director, Terry Brooks, said his big takeaway for the commonwealth from this year’s report is “extreme disappointment.”

Over the past decade or so, he said Kentucky improved on different measures of child well-being and moved up in the national rankings from the mid-40s to the mid-30s.

“We had had such a positive trajectory the last several years,” Brooks said. “This year that changed. And so suddenly, you see a lot more indicators showing decline … That should be a real warning.”

Brooks hopes the Kids Count report will generate conversations among state lawmakers and gubernatorial candidates Andy Beshear, a Democrat, and Daniel Cameron, a Republican, about prioritizing kids in their policymaking.

“If we as a state saw ourselves as close to a bottom 10 (state) in any number of factors — whether that's, you know, basketball, bourbon or horse racing — it would be a state crisis,” he said.

The 2023 report offers a window into how the COVID-19 pandemic affected children by comparing data from 2019 and 2021 for most of its 16 metrics.

Brooks cautioned that the pandemic is just one factor, though.

“We have to include that in our analysis. But we can't use that as a cop-out,” he said. “Maybe the better question is: With the pandemic impact, where do we find ourselves, and how do we dig out of that?”

Brooks finds it instructive to use the Kids Count report to compare how Kentucky fared versus bordering states like Indiana. And he considers it most useful to compare Kentucky to itself and see how its trajectory on different metrics shifted over time.

How Kentucky fared on several measures of child well-being

The percentage of Kentucky children in poverty stayed level in 2021 compared to 2019, clocking in at 22%.

The percentage of kids whose parents lack secure employment rose, from 31% in 2019 to 33% in 2021.

On the education side, the percentage of fourth-graders who aren’t proficient in reading rose from 65% in 2019 to 69% in 2022. The percentage of eighth-graders who aren’t proficient in math also got worse, rising from 71% to 79%.

 A multi-colored bar chart shows percentages of eighth graders in Indiana and Kentucky that scored below proficiency in math. The chart breaks that 2022 data down based on children's race and ethnicity.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation
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The Annie E. Casey Foundation
The latest data from the Kids Count initiative shows a majority of eighth graders in Indiana and Kentucky scored below proficiency in math. This chart shows the percentages based on the children's race and ethnicity in each state.

Brooks said those findings are particularly concerning.

“If we have boys and girls who can't read and do math, that represents a crisis now,” he said. “But it represents maybe even a larger crisis in another decade.”

On health measures, 9.1% of Kentucky babies had a low birth-weight in 2021, compared to 8.7% in 2019. The percentage of children without health insurance stayed level at 4%.

Where Kentucky improved

Of the 16 well-being indicators measured by Kids Count, Kentucky improved on four of them — including the state’s teen birth rate.

A multi-colored line graph shows the trends for teen birth rates in Indiana, Kentucky and the U.S. over the past 10 years.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation
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The Annie E. Casey Foundation
The latest Kids Count data shows the trends for teen birth rates in Indiana, Kentucky and the U.S. over the past 10 years.

The other three improvements were:

  • 33% of kids lived in a single-parent family in 2021, compared to 36% in 2019.
  • The percentage of kids whose family’s head-of-household lacks a high school diploma declined from 11% in 2019 to 10% in 2021.
  • Data from 2017-21 show 12% of kids lived in high-poverty areas, versus data from 2012-16 that showed 16% of kids lived in such areas.

How Kentucky and Indiana compare on child care costs

The new Kids Count report also examined families’ access to child care.

To send a toddler to a child-care center, the estimated annual cost is $7,884 in Indiana and $7,162 in Kentucky. For family-based or home-based child care, it costs $7,884 per year in Indiana and $6,362 in Kentucky.

Those expenses individually eat up over 20% of the median income for a single mother in each state, and between 7% and 8% of the median income for a married couple with kids.

That’s assuming a family can secure child care at all.

Kids Count found that the families of 9% of children in Indiana and 12% of children in Kentucky had to make job changes due to child care problems.

“That should alarm us all,” Brooks said. “We're going to have to be creative in how we approach childcare because we can't even begin to talk about the workforce issue in Kentucky unless and until we talk about the childcare issue.”

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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Morgan is LPM's health reporter. Email Morgan at mwatkins@lpm.org.