Report ranks Arkansas 43rd in child well-being for second year in a row

Arkansas keeps ranking in report

Grayson Smith, then age 2, works his way through a puzzle at Butterflies & Frogs Childcare and Preschool in Fayetteville in this May 5, 2020 file photo. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which in June 2023 ranked Arkansas as No. 43 nationally in overall child well-being, made access to child care the foreword of the 2023 report, highlighting data that isn’t directly factored into a state’s child well-being score. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Gottschalk)

Arkansas ranked No. 43 in overall child well-being for the second year in a row in a report released last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The annual Kids Count Data Book measures child welfare on a national and state level using 16 indicators categorized into four domains: economic well-being, education, health and family, and community factors. Scores based on the indicators are used to rank the overall well-being of children in each state and Washington, D.C.

The top three states in the survey were New Hampshire, Utah and Massachusetts.

Ranking worse than Arkansas, starting with No. 44, were Texas, Arizona, Alabama, Oklahoma, Nevada, Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico.

Each year, data from previous years is used to calculate the scores. This year's report is based mostly on statistics from 2020 and 2021.

"This data is reflective of what was happening during the pandemic. The number of children that are 3 and 4 that weren't attending school could very much be because folks didn't want their 3-year-olds out there in the middle of a pandemic," said Keesa Smith, executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, which is the state's member of the Kids Count network.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation chooses an issue to emphasize in each report.

The foreword of this year's report is on access to child care, highlighting data that isn't directly factored into a state's child well-being score.

"When we talk about child care, we're primarily talking about day cares," Smith said. "One of the things about Arkansas is that typically, cost is not problematic. But one of the biggest issues that we saw is that there are limited, limited slots for babies and toddlers. It's easier to take care of school-aged kids. ... So if you're a new mom, who's coming to the end of, you know, her time off after the pandemic and you're trying to return to work, it's very tough to find care for your small child."

For low-income families in Arkansas, financial help with child care is available through a federally funded program administered by the state Department of Human Services.

"Access to child care is a national issue, and we will continue to focus on programs and policies that address this," DHS spokesman Gavin Lesnick said in an email. "It's important to note that Arkansas has been fortunate to add almost 8,000 additional infant, toddler and school-age slots to licensed programs across the state with American Rescue Plan Act funds. We also lost only 48 providers during COVID but added 260 across the state from March 2020 through March 2022."

According to the data book, in Arkansas the annual cost of center-based child care for toddlers last year was $6,806. The report cites a survey from 2020-21 that found that 15% of children 5 years and younger in the state had a family member who had undergone job changes due to lack of child care access in the past 12 months.

Arkansas ranked No. 46 in family and community, which is measured by the numbers of children in single-parent families, children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma, children living in high-poverty areas and births to teenagers ages 15-19 per 1,000 female teens in that age group.

In economic well-being, Arkansas ranked No. 40.

The indicators used to determine a state's score in that area are the percentages of children in poverty, children whose parents lack secure employment, children living in households with high cost burden and teens not in school and not working.

"One of the biggest things that you see from the report is the number of children that are living in poverty," Smith said. "We have 22% of children in Arkansas living in poverty, and in a good amount of our areas in the state that you travel to, there are several places where you can work, you can go to work every single day, and still not be -- still not make enough to not be classified as living in poverty."

In education, Arkansas ranked No. 37, down from No. 34 in 2022.

Indicators used to calculate the education score are young children not in school, fourth graders not proficient in reading, eighth graders not proficient in math and high school students not graduating on time.

"Arkansas is improving in the area of education, but there is still a level of investment that has to happen more significantly in that area," Smith said. "We will see if some of the investments that have been written into the LEARNS Act, if that's going to manifest itself in children having better outcomes.

"Right now we're better than where we are in other areas, but there's a lot of room to grow, especially when we talk about reading proficiency [and] math proficiency."

In its report, the Annie E. Casey Foundation called for more investment in child care by the federal government and state and local governments and for Congress to expand a federal program serving student parents.

Governments should also eliminate unnecessary regulations preventing people from opening home-based child care businesses and look for ways to support businesses already in operation, the foundation said.