Connecticut was ranked 9th in the nation on child well-being in an annual report released Wednesday, with a need for more affordable child care and a static poverty rate among the factors that led to the state’s drop in ranking over last year.

The Kids Count report, compiled by Baltimore-based nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation, had Connecticut in 7th place last year. The report examines data across 16 total indicators in four broad categories: education, health, economic well-being, and family and community. This year’s document, which ranked New Hampshire first overall and New Mexico last, is based on data from 2021 and 2022.

Several factors contributed to Connecticut’s drop, including an increase in its rate of babies born with low birth weights, compared to 2019. The number of children living in poverty has also remained largely stagnant since 2012, according to a press release from Connecticut Voices for Children, the state’s member organization in the Kids Count network.

The release also ties the “lack of affordable and accessible child care and Connecticut’s slower economic recovery” to a lower ranking in family economic security. In some instances, Connecticut’s rank dropped on an indicator not because of a worsening problem, but because other states made progress more quickly.

The state scored well in education markers, at third in the nation. Connecticut is first in the nation regarding preschool attendance and eighth in fourth-grade reading proficiency.

The national report focuses on the need for more affordable child care nationwide. Child care poses one of the biggest blocks for parents with low incomes to participate in the workforce.

Early in the pandemic, the number of child care workers nationally plummeted by more than a third from 1.1 million as people started staying home. The number has rebounded to 996,000as of April 2023, still thousands less than pre-pandemic, according to the report.

Emily Byrne, executive director at Connecticut Voices, said the state has made policies for years that benefit early childhood care, but there’s still more to do.

“We’re talking about critical steps that lay the groundwork for Connecticut to reach universal access to early child care,” Byrne said in an interview. “Great progress has been made, but there’s lots more to do.”

Nearly all of the indicators showed disparate outcomes by race and ethnicity, the report says. Children of color are more likely to live in single-parent families and in poverty. They’re also less likely to have health insurance.

Unfortunately what we’re seeing as a result of the pandemic is that those disparities continue to grow,” said Leslie Boissiere, Annie E. Casey vice president of external affairs.

Lack of access to child care can make it hard to keep a job. Parents might miss work if they’re not able to pay for child care or don’t have adequate transportation to get their kids there, the report says.

In 2021, the average cost of care for one child in the United States was about $10,600 annually, according to an analysis by Child Care Aware, which the Kids Count report references.

The report says that in Connecticut, the cost of center-based care for toddlers is about $18,156 while family or home-based care cost $11,955 annually. About 15% of Connecticut children under 6 had family members who had job changes because of problems with child care, the report says.

The Connecticut legislature undertook a couple of measures to address child care costs this session, including an increase in the human capital investment tax credit. The budget set the tax credit at 25% for child care-related investments — meaning businesses have greater tax incentives to build on-site child care facilities.

Gov. Ned Lamont also created the Blue Ribbon Panel on Child Care through an executive order earlier this year. The panel is tasked with coming up with a data-driven plan to find solutions to issues with the child care system. And the state legislature voted this session to create an Early Childhood Education trust fund to support early childcare initiatives.

Still, experts say the state needs more investment.

“It [the report] underscores that lack of high-quality, affordable and accessible child care, in particular, short-changes children and causes parents to frequently miss work or even quit their jobs, while those who can find care are paying dearly for it,” a Connecticut press release on the Kids Count report says. “These child care challenges cost the American economy billions of dollars a year and stymie women professionally.”

Economic security

Meanwhile, the percentage of children in poverty in Connecticut has fluctuated only slightly over the past couple of years. The most recent data shows that it’s at about 13%, lower than the national average.

Experts have said Connecticut suffers from severe wealth disparities along racial and ethnic lines. Still, the percentage of children in Connecticut who are living with a high housing cost burden improved slightly over 2019, dropping from 34% to 31%.

That percentage is just above the national average of about 30%.

The country has faced a housing shortage in recent years, and Connecticut has some of the higher housing costs in the country, Boissiere said.

Connecticut lacks about 89,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters. Housing is typically considered affordable if a resident spends up to a third of their income on housing costs.

Housing was a focus during this legislative session, although pushes to implement statewide zoning reforms in attempts to increase the affordable housing stock fell short. A bill that enacts renter protections requires that the state study regional needs for housing, set a method for dividing up that need and compile information about how many units each town would need to have to meet the need, a method known as “fair share.”

The state’s bonding package for the next two fiscal years also includes almost a billion dollars for housing-related programs, including building more housing, improving existing housing and encouraging homeownership.

Connecticut ranked 15th in the country on economic well-being.

Education, health, family

The education rankings in Connecticut stood out, and Connecticut Voices marked it as an area where the state is doing well.

The state ranked third in the education category, lower than only Massachusetts and New Jersey.

In the early parts of the pandemic, education data collection was disrupted when children were suddenly sent home from school. This year’s data paints a clearer picture of learning loss, experts said.

“It’s critically important that we look at the learning losses due to the pandemic and bolster the trajectory that children are on as a result of that learning loss,” Boissiere said.

Connecticut educators have battled heightened levels of chronic absenteeism that set in after the pandemic.

But the state had worse rankings in other areas, such as some health measures. The state ranked 12th overall in health categories, according to the report.

The number of babies born with low birth weights increased in Connecticut to about 8.1% – close to 3,000 babies. The rate of child and teen deaths per 100,000 also worsened from 16 per 100,000 in 2019 to 20 per 100,000 in 2021, although that number is still below the national average.

The state made gains in the number of children with health insurance. The legislature passed a bill this session that aims to improve that further – Senate Bill 2. Among other things, that legislation aims to help qualifying kids access HUSKY insurance.

But Connecticut improved more slowly than some other states on that indicator, Byrne said.

Connecticut’s percentage of kids who live in high-poverty areas dropped, as did the teen birth rate.

A slightly higher percentage of children were in single-parent households, according to the report. Connecticut ranked 19th on family and community measures.

The report helps highlight areas where Connecticut can help make things better for kids, Byrne said.

“Even if we are scoring well, that isn’t the best we can do,” she said. “Any child left behind is one child too many.”