A new report on child well-being, measured by state and race, has turned an unflattering spotlight on some places not used to being at the bottom of such lists, including Wisconsin, with a worst-in-the-nation ranking for its black children, and South Dakota, with abysmal results for its American Indian youth.
The report, released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, detailed nationwide racial disparities that put Asian and white children in a far more advantageous position than black, Latino and American Indian children. For some advocates for children, the state-specific results were stinging.
"Wisconsin is a state that claims to value opportunity and community and fairness," said Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. "That we are the worst in the nation when it comes to the well-being of our African-American children is unacceptable."
He noted that a report by his council last year on Wisconsin's Dane County — home to the University of Wisconsin's main campus — had turned up glaring black-white discrepancies in and around Madison, the relatively progressive and prosperous capital city.
"We knew we were among the worst, but there is something striking about having a national organization rank us last ... especially when our white children are ranked 10th," said Colleen Butler, racial justice director for the YWCA in Madison.
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"Sadly, the national attention is something that is inspiring people to figure out what's going on and how to improve," Butler said. "It's going to be a long-term process. It won't happen overnight."
The essence of the Casey report is a newly devised index based on 12 indicators measuring a child's success from birth to adulthood. The indicators include reading and math proficiency, high school graduation data, teen birthrates, employment prospects, family income and education levels, and neighborhood poverty levels.
Nationally, Asian children had the highest composite score at 776, followed by white children at 704. Then there was a sharp drop-off: the scores were 404 for Latino children, 387 for American-Indian children and 345 for black children.
Wisconsin had the worst score for its black youth at 285, followed by Mississippi, then Michigan.
In Michigan, unlike Wisconsin, white children also ranked in the bottom half of the index. The net result is "a very distressful picture about all children in Michigan," according to Tonya Allen, president and chief executive of the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, which invests $17 million each year in education, community programs and youth development.
"When you look at the people who have left Michigan and have left the city of Detroit, the largest percentage is families with young children," she said. "People are not finding Michigan — or Detroit — a compelling place to raise their children."
In the Casey index for American Indian children, the South Dakota score of 185 was the lowest of any racial group in any state — a result of the deep poverty that prevails on many of South Dakota's Indian reservations.
Sherry Salway Black, a tribal governance expert with the National Congress of American Indians, described the South Dakota score as "horrendous," but said she was impressed by initiatives on some of the reservations that could help children and families.
In particular, she praised native-run community development financial institutions for seeking to improve youth employment and provide young people with financial literacy education.
"It's a beacon of hope," she said.
The Casey report cited several other initiatives around the United States that appeared to hold promise for improving the prospects of disadvantaged children. Among them:
—An innovative school funding system in California — the Local Control Funding Formula — which enables school districts to receive extra money based on such factors as child poverty and the number of children in the foster care system.
—The Family and Child Education Program launched by Parents as Teachers, a St. Louis-based advocacy and outreach group, to improve reading and math proficiency among American Indian children. Casey said the program is now offered in 45 Bureau of Indian Education Schools.
—Volunteers of America's Look Up and Hope initiative, launched in 2009 to help support children with a mother in prison. It provides incarcerated mothers, their children and their children's caregivers with up to five years of comprehensive services, including home visits and individualized support from a case manager.
Ken Taylor of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families expressed hope that the state's low score for black children would serve as an alarm bell — both for Wisconsin and the whole country — to galvanize politicians, community leaders, nonprofits and employers into action.
"Historically, we're a state that invests in kids, invests in education," he said. "Are we still that kind of state? That's an open question."
Improvements, he said, should be pursued with a sense of urgency, but also with the understanding that progress would take years.
"We need to be supporting kids from birth on ... we also need to get parents from communities of color into family-supporting jobs," he said. "We need a two-generation approach."