At first blush, this sounds like good news on a couple of fronts. After all, being 14th out of 50 states seems like a pretty respectable spot, and Pennsylvania appears to have made solid advancement from its ranking of 20th in the previous year.
But the year-to-year comparison is misleading because this year's KIDS COUNT Data Book drastically revamped the measures used to gauge children's well-being, making them more refined and more reflective of what's really going on within each state. In other words, the 14th to 20th comparison is apples to oranges. The new rankings use 16 measures within four domains: an education domain; a health domain; an economic well-being domain; and a family and community domain.
As for our overall ranking among the states, there's good and bad news. We placed 14th largely because of our strong showing in the health and education domains - two areas where Pennsylvania has made a concerted, bipartisan effort to be a national leader. We have universal health care coverage for Pennsylvania's kids and we have fought hard to build and preserve our investments in quality early childhood education initiatives and other proven programs that boost academic achievement.
The bad news is we lag in other areas of child well-being. About 1 in 5 Pennsylvania children lived in poverty in 2010, while nearly 1 in 3 were in families in which no parent had full-time, year-round employment. It would be easy to blame these sad statistics on the lingering effects of the recession, but considering every state dealt with the same rough economy that Pennsylvania endured, there is clearly something else happening within our commonwealth that is hampering the well-being of our kids.
As we move ahead, Pennsylvania has two challenges. First, we need to improve in the areas where we lag, striving to lift more children and families out of poverty and helping unemployed or underemployed parents find secure, family-sustaining jobs. Second, we need to make sure we don't backslide in the areas where we are strong - education and children's health.
One important way we can advance in the health care rankings is to establish a state-run health insurance exchange - a consumer-friendly marketplace where parents can find affordable health care coverage for their children.
Setting up this exchange should be a priority when lawmakers return to session this fall. If we do it right, the exchange can play a critical role in helping provide coverage for more than 153,000 Pennsylvania children who still lack health insurance. That, in turn, can help make Pennsylvania one of the best states to be a child and raise a child.
Ranking 14th in the nation is respectable, but Pennsylvania can do better.
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