BISMARCK, N.D. | Strong local economies and an oil boom have helped the Dakotas lead the nation in terms of economic well-being for children, according a report released Tuesday by a national children's advocacy group that also says the two states could improve when it comes to education and kids living in poverty.
The annual Kids Count report, published Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranked North Dakota and South Dakota as the top two states for economic well-being, based on data from 2012, the most recent year for which the information is available. This is the third year North Dakota ranks No. 1 in the economic well-being category, which measures the percentage of children in poverty, along with parental employment, housing costs and the number of teens working or in school.
The annual report also looks at statistics on education, health and family and community in each state.
Carole Cochran, the project director for Kids Count South Dakota, said North Dakota's booming oil and gas industry has helped push South Dakota up in the rankings.
"There's certainly an economic impact that is broader than just North Dakota," she said.
Laura Speer, the associate director of policy reform and advocacy at the Casey Foundation, said the Great Plains as a whole have fared better than the rest of the country in recent years in terms of economic development. The other spots in the top five are held by Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.
"It's not necessarily new," Speer said. It's just that "the states in the Great Plains seem to have weathered the recession a bit better than other states have."
But despite a strong economic showing, organizations in both North Dakota and South Dakota stressed that the number of children living in poverty — particularly Native American children — and measures of educational readiness are troublesome.
The percentage of children in North Dakota — 13 percent, or about 20,000 — who are living below the poverty line is the lowest in the nation, but has remained stagnant, said Karen Olson, the project manager for North Dakota Kids Count at North Dakota State University.
"Despite that rapid growth in North Dakota's economy, that poverty rate has not changed in 12 years," she said.
Olson also said there are significant disparities within the state. About half of Native American children in North Dakota live in poverty.
In South Dakota, 17 percent of children, or about 35,000, live below the poverty line. Speer said American Indian children in the state fare worse in terms of education and poverty than any other group in the country.
"So, certainly, when you look at the state level, when you look across the Plains, kids are doing really well at the economic well-being measures — at the median — but it's not the case for all kids," she said.
In both states, most children ages 3 and 4 are not enrolled in preschool. About 64 percent of children in North Dakota — 5th worst in the nation — are not enrolled in preschool, which research shows can improve school readiness and help at-risk children. In South Dakota, about 62 percent of children are not attending preschool.