West Virginia children are faring better in some small ways, but as a whole the well-being of the state’s youth is on a minor decline, according to the 2020 KIDS COUNT data book.
The national data book, released annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, uses 16 factors spread across health, family and community, economics and education to determine the well-being of children in each state. The report includes county-level data for all the national categories, as well as 10 additional factors — listed as emerging well-being indicators — specifically tailored to trends and issues in West Virginia.
This year’s report is based mostly on data from 2018, meaning the far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are not considered in the findings.
“This was all pre-pandemic, so these numbers are not telling you what it’s like right now in West Virginia. That’s the big grain of salt in all of this,” said Sean O’Leary, a policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, who worked on the data and policy advisory committee for the 2020 WV KIDS COUNT data book. “Poverty will look a lot different this year. A lot will look different this year, I think.”
With that caveat, overall well-being for West Virginia’s children nationally dropped one place between 2019 and 2020, from 43 to 44. The state’s health ranking dropped from 31st in the nation in 2019 to 37th, and education rankings dropped one place, 43rd to 44th.
Family and community rankings were somewhat improved in 2020, coming in at 33rd in the nation compared to 34th, and the economic ranking stayed the same, at 48th, between the two years.
Overall, Putnam County is considered to have the highest overall child well-being in West Virginia, followed by Monongalia, Monroe, Mineral and Marion counties. McDowell is considered to have the worst, followed by Roane, Grant, Mercer and Logan counties.
While education is down as a whole, the data book suggests that more high-schoolers are graduating on time — 90% according to the state Department of Education — and proficiency in fourth grade reading is slightly higher, with 70% of students proficient compared to previously 68%.
Data at the county level can be hard to pin down, as sample sizes can be very small, O’Leary said.
This is especially true for the emerging well-being indicators, which are specific to West Virginia and — depending on the subject — may be difficult to track and qualify without widespread study.
For example, the data book uses access to central fluoridated water as an emerging well-being indicator, however the data source only reports public water systems in its survey. So while the data book lists McDowell County as having 100% of children living with fluoridated water, it does not include information on the hundreds of children who live without access to a public water source or on potentially contaminated private wells, cisterns or springs.
O’Leary said it’s good to keep these caveats — which are listed and detailed at the beginning of the data book — in mind, but not to discredit the data as a whole.
“There are things to consider, and it’s not perfect, sure, but imperfect does not mean unuseful,” O’Leary said.
West Virginia saw a small decrease in the number of children living in poverty, with 87,000 in 2018 compared to 94,000 in the previous year’s estimates. Between the 2019 and 2020 studies, 27 counties in West Virginia saw improvements in their child poverty rates. McDowell County still lags, however, with nearly 43% of children living below the poverty line. Jefferson and Berkeley counties lead the state, with 11% and 16% of children respectively living in poverty.
Per the state data book, 2.8% of West Virginia children are considered homeless by county boards of education, compared to 2.4% the year before. Less than half the counties in West Virginia saw a decrease in the number of children experiencing homelessness compared to 2019, and coupled with increases in the number of children living with grandparents or in foster care over that same time, it’s clear that fewer of the state’s children are residing in stable home environments.
While, nationally, West Virginia saw the largest well-being change between 2019 and 2020 in health factors, overall the individual indicators used to determine the rank (babies born with a low birthweight, the number of uninsured children, child and teen deaths per 100,000 and the number of children and teens who are overweight or obese) remained consistent.
This means that while West Virginia may not have done anything worse between the two study periods, other states overwhelmingly did better, allowing them to rank higher while West Virginia dropped.
In a way, O’Leary said, that’s a reminder of why the data book can be so useful: it’s not just about seeing West Virginia’s improvements or weaknesses, but about seeing progress made compared to other states.
This information is meant to help inform policy decisions in West Virginia that would better the livelihood of children in the state. O’Leary, who works studying economic and related health trends for all populations in the state, said understanding policies affecting children is incredibly important, as the consequences of growing up in poverty can have lifelong impacts.
“When you think about children, that’s usually our most vulnerable population. ... All these things associated with a child living in poverty will have long-term, life-time consequences,” O’Leary said. “If we look at these issues though, address them now, make those interventions, that action pays those dividends down the line. When you make investments now, they will pay themselves off in the future.”
While many key factors listed in the 2020 data book — like the number of children living with parents who lack secure employment — are bound to worsen as thousands in the state have grappled with lost jobs, health complications and housing difficulties amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the data can still be useful to help remember a baseline for West Virginia as pandemic recovery efforts continue.
“You can look and see, when we’re able to see data from this year, what our baseline was before. It can show you what direction West Virginia was moving in, what we were doing well in and already struggling with,” O’Leary said. “You can’t look at these indicators separately, one year to the next. You have to take into account the context and what is going on in the state at the time to learn from any of it.”
To view the entire 2020 WV KIDS COUNT data book as well as county-by-county profiles for all indicators, visit wvkidscount.org.