An annual report on the well-being of the nation's children again ranks Minnesota among the states that best care for their youngest citizens while offering a worrisome reminder of significant inequality.
The KIDS COUNT data book released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota ranks Minnesota 5th overall in the nation. But the report found the state also has some of the worst disparities in the country, with nearly half of Minnesota's black children living in poverty.
Since 1990, the year of the first KIDS COUNT data book, the number of children in Minnesota living in areas where more than 30 percent of residents live in poverty has doubled, from three percent to six percent, said Stephanie Hogenson, research and policy director with the Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota.
"High poverty areas oftentimes are less safe," Hogenson said. "They have less resources like parks and tutoring programs. And it's more difficult to play outside, higher pollution rates as well as poorer-performing schools."
The economic recovery has come more slowly for poor families. According to KIDS COUNT, the 2012 data showed 15 percent of Minnesota children living in poverty, still several percentage points higher than it was in 2005.
For more than a decade, KIDS COUNT has ranked Minnesota in the top five states for overall-child well-being. The annual snapshot compares data from every state, focusing on 6 indicators of economic well-being, education, health and family and community.
Minnesota ranked 4th for economic well-being, just behind neighboring North and South Dakota and Iowa. In health, Minnesota slipped a couple spots to 17, and in education it moved up a spot, to number 6.
Hogenson said many of Minnesota's children are thriving, but not all.
"When we look at the numbers broken down by race and ethnicity, some of the educational outcomes, we know that children of color and American Indian children are less likely to be prepared for kindergarten and less likely to be enrolled in nursery school/pre-school at age three to five," she said.
Nearly a third of second graders enrolled in public schools in Minnesota are children of color. Given those numbers, determining how to help children of all races succeed in Minnesota schools is a problem of growing urgency, Hogenson said.
Among the programs aiming to address the disparities identified in the KIDS COUNT report is the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis.
At a summer school program at Plymouth Christian Youth Center, teacher Helen Fogg read a book with kindergarteners on Monday and asked them to tell her what the letters B-A-D spelled. One of the children thought the character must feel "grumpty."
"BAD. I feel grumpy and mean," Fogg responded. "So you're right, bad, grumpy mean, they all kind of mean the same thing."
By the time they reach the fourth grade, 59 percent of children in Minnesota are not proficient in reading.
Hogenson, of the Children's Defense Fund, said the numbers are more worrisome for students of color. Nearly 80 percent of black and Hispanic children aren't hitting the 4th grade benchmark in reading.
The achievement zone serves a high poverty neighborhood by trying to help families tackle a range of issues that affect children's progress -- from employment to housing.
Last summer, Northside Achievement Zone data showed that a majority of children who did intensive work over the summer gained at least half a grade level.