Friday, September 19, 2014
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New Jersey likes kids, but can do better

That New Jersey ranks highly as a good place to raise children isn’t surprising. After all, its residents are among the wealthiest per capita in America. But the makers of public policy in the state must address shortcomings in combating child poverty that the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kid’s Count report says have gotten worse since the recession.

New Jersey likes kids, but can do better

At Pyne Point Park in Camden, Isaiah Gonzalez, 10, pitches to Adrian Woloshin, 8. ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer )
At Pyne Point Park in Camden, Isaiah Gonzalez, 10, pitches to Adrian Woloshin, 8. ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer ) INQ ROBERTSON

That New Jersey ranks highly as a good place to raise children isn’t surprising. After all, its residents are among the wealthiest per capita in America. But the makers of public policy in the state must address shortcomings in combating child poverty that the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kid’s Count report says have gotten worse since the recession.

New Jersey ranked fourth overall in the report — below New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Pennsylvania was 14th. While New Jersey received good marks in education and health services for children, it ranked 19th in the economic well-being of families. To a large degree, this is due to New Jersey’s having the third highest housing costs in the country.

About 48 percent of New Jersey children live in households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, compared with a national average of 41 percent, and 35 percent in Pennsylvania. New Jersey’s poorest counties — Cumberland, Atlantic, and Cape May — are also its least affordable. More than 60 percent of all the households in those counties pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing, according to a separate report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

About 14 percent of New Jersey’s children live in poverty, according to the Kids Count survey. That’s better than Pennsylvania’s 19 percent, or the 22 percent national average, but again, given New Jersey’s wealth, the state should be doing better. One way it could improve the plight of poor families and their children is to restore the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which Gov. Christie vetoed because other tax cuts he favored weren’t approved by the Legislature. His position has placed a heavier economic burden on poor families.

New Jersey should take the same approach to poverty as it applies to education. The state ranks second only to Massachusetts on the Kids Count education index. It has the nation’s highest rate of preschool enrollment, with only 36 percent of its 3- and 4-year-old children not in school, compared with 53 percent nationally, and 51 percent in Pennsylvania.

New Jersey fourth graders ranked second highest in the nation in reading proficiency. And its high school graduation rate of 85 percent is among the best in the nation as well. With so much focus on the urban districts where too many public schools are failing, it’s easy to lose sight of the state’s overall academic achievement.

More good news for New Jersey: It ranked fifth in the nation on the Kids Count health index, thanks to its low mortality rates among children and teenagers. Also, only 6 percent of New Jersey teenagers were reported as using alcohol or drugs.

But while the Kids Count report presents a generally positive picture of the state and the nation, the good news is tempered by numbers showing the recession’s impact remains. In 43 states, more children are living in poverty than in 2005.

New Jersey’s 14 percent of children living in poverty is a long way from Mississippi’s 33 percent, but it’s still too many poor children. Improving their academic performance is only one factor in ensuring a better future for them.

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