These Are the Worst Places to Be a Child in America

In a new report that ranked counties across the U.S. on their prioritization of children, one-third of the bottom-ranked communities—where children's futures are most compromised—are majority Black. Here's what needs to be done to help every American kid thrive in the face of inequality.

kids with raised hand sitting in classroom
Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

It has never been more clear that systemic inequalities and racial disparities across communities are shaping families’ lives and children’s futures. And now there are an astounding amount of new statistics to prove it.

Save the Children, a nonprofit is dedicated to bettering the lives of children living in poverty in the U.S., recently published its 2020 U.S. Complement to the Global Childhood Report entitled, “The Land of Inopportunity: Closing the Childhood Equity Gap for America’s Kids.” After evaluating data from more than 2,600 counties and county-equivalents in all 50 states, researchers compiled the first-ever ranking of these counties, based on where kids are least and most protected and prioritized. The rankings are based on four factors that end childhood: malnutrition, poor education, teenage pregnancy and early death due to ill health, accident, murder, or suicide.

The complete study highlights how individual counties are supporting kids in America—or failing to give them the future that they deserve. Children in certain U.S. counties are dying at rates up to five times those of their peers in the same state. Not only that, but they are three times as likely to lack healthy food and consistent meals and 14 times as likely to drop out of high school. These are the communities in which our children are severely lacking the support they need, and why.

Minority Children in the U.S. Are Being Left Behind

One of the most glaring findings was the racial disparities across counties. In a press release on the report, Save the Children notes, “After centuries of systemic racism and injustice, children of color continue to be left behind. Racial inequities start in childhood and have life-long impacts on children of color."

Close to 90 percent of counties nationwide are majority white, which is defined as more than 50 percent white. But about a third of the counties where children’s futures are most compromised are majority African American and more than a quarter are majority Native American. Put another way: Among those bottom-ranked 50 counties, 15 are majority black, 14 are majority Native American, and 12 are majority Hispanic, says Sara Luciano, Director, Media & Communications for U.S. Programs & Advocacy, Save the Children.

save the children report
Save the Children

Additionally, the report found stunning equity gaps between the best and worst counties for children within nearly every state. For example, New Jersey has the most high-performing counties for kids—the Garden State has six of the 20 best-ranked counties in the nation. But it’s highly inequitable, note researchers. Children in Cumberland, the worst New Jersey county, are seven times as likely to have their childhoods cut short as children in Hunterdon, the best county in New Jersey and in the U.S. overall. Of the rest of the states, only Minnesota and Wisconsin have larger gaps between their highest and lowest-ranked counties.

The bottom 10 counties overall, according to the report, are:

  • Nome Census Area, Alaska
  • Morehouse Parish, Louisiana
  • Bennett County, South Dakota
  • Big Horn County, Montana
  • Northwest Arctic Borough, Alaska
  • Bethel Census Area, Alaska
  • Corson County, South Dakota
  • Madison Parish, Louisiana
  • Todd County, South Dakota
  • Kusilvak Census Area, Alaska

The report also highlights overwhelming child deprivation in rural America. Rural counties account for 84 percent of the counties where the most children struggle with hunger, 59 percent of counties with the highest teen birth rates, and 54 percent of counties where the most children are dying. And that the bottom quarter of the counties—most of them rural and high poverty—account for more than 9 million children, which means more than 1 in every 8 children in America is experiencing shockingly high rates of food insecurity, school drop out, teenage pregnancy or child deaths.

It’s worth zooming out to consider the findings from a global perspective matters too. When it comes to helping children reach their full potential, the U.S. ranks 43rd out of 180 countries, tied with China and Montenegro, and trailing nearly all other high-income countries, according to Save the Children.

Hope on the Horizon for All American Children

Although the picture the report paints looks bleak for millions of young people nationwide, plenty of counties are modeling the way forward. Save the Children notes that if each county protected and provided for its children through investments in education, mental and physical health as well as the highest-ranked county in its state, 3.5 million fewer children would struggle with hunger, 130,000 fewer teens would give birth, and 15,000 fewer children would die each year.

In the report, the organization calls on policymakers “to robustly support the welfare and development of all children, regardless of where they reside.” Researchers elaborate, “To achieve this objective, all levels of government must work together—along with the private sector—to craft strong policies, provide sufficient resources, and create an appropriate regulatory environment for relevant early childhood programs and interventions to flourish.”

The bottom line: “This report uncovers an unacceptable reality in America: millions of poor and marginalized children in this country do not get a fair chance to succeed in life because of who they are and where they grow up,” Mark Shriver, Senior Vice President of Save the Children’s U.S. Programs and Advocacy stated in the press release.

“A child does not decide where to live, and where a child grows up should not dictate his or her future. In every state in our nation, the report reveals significant equity gaps for kids,” Betsy Zorio, the vice president of U.S. programs and advocacy at Save the Children, explained in a telebriefing on the report. “Childhood should not be left to chance, and we need targeted, new investments for the most vulnerable children who are being left behind. Raising a more successful generation of children will benefit our nation, and the world, for years to come. Today’s children are tomorrow’s engineers, nurses, teachers, firefighters, entrepreneurs, inventors, humanitarians, and simply put, leaders.”

And Shriver hopes the report will serve as a call to sweeping action, noting, “In these tumultuous times, let’s all commit to vote at every level of government—for the future of every child—to have equal opportunities to survive, thrive and be protected.”

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