September 3, 2014 10:22:44 AM
OXFORD -- For a full quarter-century now, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has issued news releases calling Mississippi the absolute worst or almost the absolute worst place to be a child in America.
During this span, the foundation's Kids Count surveys have gained credibility. They are consistently cited as authoritative and conclusive. Still -- and not to explain-away or diminish the state's perpetual finish in 50th place or 49th place -- it's crucial to look behind the curtain to see what's being measured.
First, the foundation itself.
James Casey, one of the founders of United Parcel Service, endowed the foundation with some of his personal wealth in 1948. It was based in Seattle at the time. He was joined by his brothers and sister in the venture. They named it their mother, Annie.
The foundation later moved its base of operations to Baltimore. Its financials now show about $2.7 billion in assets, that it receives grants from other organizations of $5 million or so a year and that it spends up to $100 million per year on its research, educational and philanthropic work.
Now, the foundation's philosophy: The Annie E. Casey Foundation reaches its conclusions based on family and community structure, household wealth, education and health. A key precept is that household finances are key to just about everything else.
There are many quality of life variables -- pollution, population density, prevailing wages, frequency of church attendance -- but the Kids Count project measures what it measures and draws conclusions based on the numbers it believes to be the most telling.
This money-centrism has some relevance to Mississippi always finishing last or next-to-last and that all the states we border are in the 40s, except Tennessee, which finished 36th this year. On average, people in the South have lower incomes and spend less on their children and schools. Massachusetts was ranked as the best place to be a kid. Base pay for a senior custodian in a public school there is $70,000. In Mississippi, you almost have to be governor to get a paycheck like that.
Too, housing is cheaper here, Mississippi was just listed as having the cheapest gasoline in America and the Tax Foundation says we're No. 1 in what $100 will buy.
More bang for the buck may sound like rationalization, but it's explanation. Remember, too, that federal taxes are progressive. If a person's income doubles, the IRS may take triple. With lower average household income, Mississippians also have proportionally more disposable income. If considerations such as this are factored in the Kids Count math, it doesn't show.
And, finally, there isn't a wide statistical gulf between being No. 1 and No. 50. The figures are not "normed" for population.
For example, in Massachusetts, 42 percent of eligible children are not enrolled in preschool programs. In Mississippi, the figure is 50 percent -- but that represents 42,000 children whereas the actual number in Massachusetts is 62,000.
Abuse of drugs and alcohol by teens was declining in both states, but 6 percent in Mississippi (14,000 teens) and 7 percent in Massachusetts (35,000 teens) have a problem.
In Massachusetts, 30 percent of children have parents who lack secure employment, but that's 414,000 children as compared to 40 percent in Mississippi and 301,000 children.
Numbers are what they are and there are few bragging points in the details for Mississippi or Massachusetts. There are some. In both states, the proportions of children in preschool classes, who are reading and understanding math at proficient levels and who are graduating from high school on time are improving. In both states, proportions of low-birth weight babies, children without health insurance and youthful deaths are declining.
Of course, it's quite natural for the Annie E. Casey Foundation to keep the pressure on and to avoid claiming victory on any child welfare topic. To do so would mean the foundation's work is done and, quite clearly, it's not. Did you know that 337,000 children in Mississippi, 435,000 children in Massachusetts and a total of 24.7 million in America live with one parent?
Mississippi's challenge is not to hear the figures, say, "Well, last again," and move on. Mississippi's challenge is to understand the numbers in context -- that the measurements are substantially based on local economic conditions -- and to try to determine what can be done and what should be done to bring about improvement.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has billions to encourage us to do better. It's what they do.