A new national report on child well-being ranks Mississippi 32nd in the nation for education, the only measure in which the state’s rank has meaningfully improved in the last decade. 

The 2023 KIDS COUNT Data Book, published annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranked Mississippi as 48th for overall child well-being, 47th in economic well-being, 50th in health, and 50th in family and community. 

Credit: The Annie E. Casey Foundation

Economic well-being is composed of metrics including housing cost burden, secure employment, and child poverty. Education is based on pre-K participation, graduation rates, and reading and math proficiency. Health is calculated using low-birth weight, access to health insurance, and obesity. Family and community is based on single-parent homes, teen birth rates, and children living in high-poverty areas.  

The education ranking has seen steady improvement over the last decade, moving from 48th in 2014. A press release from the Children’s Foundation of Mississippi, a partner in the report, attributed the most recent improvement to the increased high school graduation rate. This year’s report is based on graduation rates for students who graduated in May 2020, when the Mississippi Department of Education waived several graduation requirements in light of the pandemic and the graduation rate rose. More recent data from the education department shows the graduation rate has remained higher than pre-pandemic levels, even when the requirements have been reinstated. 

“The overall rank for education is quite a bright spot,” said Linda Southward, executive director of the Children’s Foundation of Mississippi. 

Commenting on the results generally, Southward also said the four areas of the report are very interconnected because of the essential role of the family in a child’s life. She tied the overall scores to the high child poverty rate of 28% in Mississippi. 

The report also highlights problems with the nation’s child care system, which stem from rising costs and fewer workers in the field. Data cited in the report showed the national average cost of child care in 2021 was $10,600 annually for one child. The average cost in Mississippi, at $4,382, was the lowest in the nation. Child care workers in Mississippi are also the lowest paid in the nation, with an hourly median wage of $9.83. 

Southward said there are about 1,500 licensed child care centers in the state, which are only able to offer slots for about two-thirds of kids under age 5, which points to a need for additional investment in family-based child care. 

She also pointed to a 2020 U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report that said the Mississippi economy loses $673 million annually from child care-related issues. 

“(Research shows) that when parents can confidently go to work, know their child is being taken care of in a quality setting, the whole comprehensive approach to child care pays for itself,” Southward said. 

One of the policy recommendations is to strengthen the Child Care and Development Block Grant, a federal program that gives states money to assist low-income families with the cost of child care. 

Carol Burnett, director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, said the program is an excellent support to parents in Mississippi who receive it but only about 30% of the state’s eligible kids are being served because the program doesn’t have enough money to cover all of the eligible children. She said this problem is widespread nationally. 

She also added that procedural barriers, or “red tape,” also limit parents from successfully applying. Burnett said she has observed the Mississippi Department of Human Services work to improve the process, including recently lifting a requirement to sue noncustodial parents for child support before being eligible for the grant.

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Julia, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.