Ask A Researcher

July 2017

North Dakota among Top 10 States in Country for Child Well-Being

Karen Olson is the program director for North Dakota KIDS COUNT, a program sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and housed in the Center for Social Research at North Dakota State University. On June 13th, 2017, the Casey Foundation released the 2017 KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual assessment of children’s well-being in the United States. In this article, Karen answers some questions about this year’s Data Book and what it has to say about the status of North Dakota’s children, relative to other states.


What is the KIDS COUNT Data Book? KIDS COUNT is a national and state-by-state project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation to track the status of children in the United States. At a national level, one of the principal activities of the initiative is the publication of the KIDS COUNT Data Book, which uses the best available state-level data to measure the educational, socio-economic, and physical well-being of children. The Data Book provides a portrait of how U.S. children are doing in four key domains: economic well-being, family and community, education, and health. States are ranked on 16 indicators of child well-being (four for each domain) that reflect current research regarding the conditions needed for proper child development.

How does North Dakota rank in this year’s Data Book? According to the 2017 KIDS COUNT Data Book, North Dakota ranks ninth in the nation for overall child well-being. While we remain among the top 10 states this year, we cannot directly compare with last year’s ranking. Due to a change in how one of the four Education indicators is measured, it is difficult to know if a change in the overall ranking is a result of real change or if it is a result of the change in methodology.

What does the 2017 Data Book tell us about the overall well-being of North Dakota’s children? North Dakota’s child population is growing and thriving in many ways. The past few years have brought some positive developments for the state’s children and families. The state’s economic growth has boosted the economic well-being of children, reducing child poverty to 12 percent. Most children live in two-parent homes where parents have completed high school and have full-time, year-round work. Yet, despite these strengths, North Dakota struggles to improve child health and education.

North Dakota has fallen 10 spots in the overall health ranking, down to 27th place this year. The uninsured rate for children rose to 8 percent in 2015, meaning that approximately 13,000 North Dakota children have no form of health insurance coverage.

Similar to health, education also remains an area where more work needs to be done. Most fourth graders (63 percent) are not reading proficiently, 61 percent of eighth graders are not proficient in math, and 64 percent of 3- and 4-year olds are not enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs.

What stands out with respect to the four domains?
The annual KIDS COUNT Data Book uses 16 indicators to rank each state across four domains — economic well-being, family and community, education, and health — that represent what children need most to thrive. North Dakota ranks:

  • 1st in Economic Well-Being. Moving up from second into first place, North Dakota now leads the nation in the economic well-being of children. Among states, North Dakota has the lowest percentage of children in families paying 30 percent or more of their income toward housing (17 percent); the lowest percentage of children without secure parental employment (20 percent), tying with Utah; the second lowest child poverty rate (12 percent); and only 5 percent of teens are neither in school nor working, compared to 7 percent nationally.
    Despite our overall positive ranking with respect to economic well-being, 20,000 children still live in poverty; and about 50,000 (more than twice as many) live in low-income households (under 200% of poverty, twice the poverty level).
    Children who experience poverty early in life, especially deep poverty, are at greater risk for poor physical and mental health outcomes, as well as lower cognitive scores and academic achievement and increased behavioral problems. In addition to fewer resources, living in a family struggling to get by can create hardships that may become a traumatic experience for a child. Economists estimate that child poverty costs the United States $500 billion annually in lost productivity and spending on health care and the criminal justice system. Growing up in an impoverished family can create cumulative disadvantages that powerfully influence the direction of a child’s life, especially if those disadvantages are not mitigated by other sources of support.
    As North Dakota leads the nation in the economic well-being of children, I think it is important for us to identify and build on targeted public investments that are helping more people lift themselves out of poverty. Examples of programs that are working include the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC).

  • 5th in the Family and Community domain. When compared with the national average, children in North Dakota fare well in terms of family and community indicators. Only 5 percent of North Dakota children live in families where the head of household lacks a high school diploma and 26 percent of children live in a single-parent family. The national averages are 14 percent and 35 percent, respectively. In addition, North Dakota saw declines in the teen birth rate and in the percentage of children living in high-poverty neighborhoods.
    Despite these positive trends, and despite faring better than national averages, two of the four family/community indicators are not showing improvement. A larger percentage of children now live with uneducated parents – and more children live with a single parent. Because there are fewer resources, children living with a single parent are 7 times more likely to live in poverty than children living with two parents.

  • 25th in Education. Despite minor improvements in some of the education measures, more than half of fourth graders are not proficient in reading and more than half of all eighth graders are not proficient in math in North Dakota – proportions that have shown very little change over time. North Dakota also has the third worst ranking with regard to early education enrollment. High-quality early learning programs for 3- and 4-year-olds can improve school readiness, with the greatest gains accruing to those children at most risk. Yet, 64 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in North Dakota do not attend school.
    A significant body of research, focusing on neuroscience and social science has established that fundamental cognitive and non-cognitive skills are produced in the early years of childhood, long before children begin kindergarten. Thus, investment in high-quality early education programs is a critical long-term economic investment in school readiness, student achievement and the future workforce. 

  • 27th in Health. Three of the four health indicators saw some positive movement. North Dakota has the third lowest percentage of low birthweight babies among states and the fifth lowest percentage of teens abusing alcohol and drugs in the nation. In addition, the percentage of teens abusing alcohol and drugs dropped from 7 percent to 5 percent from 2010 to 2015.
    Unfortunately, the uninsured rate for children rose to 8 percent in 2015. And, North Dakota is one of two states (the other being Maine) where the uninsured rate for children has been increasing since 2010. While the overall uninsured rate for children is up, when we look at factors such as income, we see that the uninsured rate for children below poverty has decreased (from 13 percent to 11 percent since 2010) – thanks to Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Where we see the rate increasing is among children in upper income families. For children living in families with incomes at least 4 times the poverty rate, the uninsured rate grew from 1 percent to 4 percent, tripling since 2010 – but still very low. We think that mobility may also be a factor. Over the past 10 years or so, North Dakota has seen significant net in-migration. And persons in North Dakota who moved within the past year are uninsured at rates that are 3 times higher than those who haven’t moved.

How are these data useful? The Data Book identifies key ingredients important for a successful transition to adulthood, measures them, and puts them in front of educators, researchers, business and community leaders, advocates, decision-makers and the general public – with the hope of providing a greater understanding of the opportunities and challenges facing our nation’s children, and inspiring action.

This year’s report examines recent trends that compare data from 2010 to 2015 – a time during which North Dakota experienced some dramatic changes. Has North Dakota seen the types of improvements in child well-being one would expect given our economic climate? Have the policies and programs currently in place had an impact on child outcomes? Are North Dakota’s children on a path to successful adulthood? The Data Book helps us answer these questions.

This year marks 28 years of bringing attention to national and state-level data on the well-being of children. The Data Book provides reliable data that can help to inform policy decisions that ease poverty and create the next generation of healthier and better-educated citizens. I hope that decision and policy makers will use this evidence to continue and expand what’s working, and to find additional solutions that make a measurable difference for children.

To those making the important decisions, developing and implementing effective policies and programs, educating and advocating on behalf of children and families in North Dakota – Thank You! Through monitoring and understanding these data, we can maintain vigilance on issues that could derail progress, such as current trends in health and education – and we can reliably understand both our strengths and our needs.

Good public policy and strategic investments can make a tremendous difference in children’s lives.

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