Children living in Philadelphia are among the most disadvantaged in America when it comes to nutrition, poverty, and related measures.
At the same time, many New Jersey kids are enjoying the best childhoods the United States can provide, though not everyone shares equally in the good fortune.
These are the findings of a sweeping report titled “The Land of Inopportunity,” released last week by Save the Children, a highly regarded worldwide charity established in 1932, during the Great Depression.
“There are stark differences between communities that provide children the childhoods they deserve and those where childhoods end too soon,” the report concluded.
For the first time in its history, Save the Children ranked counties in the United States to compare how well they’re faring in aiding children.
Some startling findings: Children in the most disadvantaged counties die at rates up to five times those of their peers in the same state, according to the report. They are three times as likely to lack healthy food and consistent meals. They are 14 times as likely to drop out of high school. And girls there get pregnant up to 26 times more often.
“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,” said Mark Shriver, a Save the Children senior vice-president.
“And Philadelphia as a county is clearly struggling.”
The report showed that Philadelphia (the largest city that’s its own county, according to federal data) ranked at No. 2,169 out of 2,617 counties in terms of children’s well-being. Although there are 3,142 counties and equivalents in the U.S., not all provided sufficient data for each of the five categories measured by Save the Children, which included rates of infant mortality, childhood food insecurity, students dropping out of high school, teen births, and homicides/suicides.
The most deprived counties have much smaller populations and are almost entirely rural, according to the report.
The only Pennsylvania county that ranked below Philadelphia was mostly rural Fayette County (at No. 2,176 nationwide), 40 miles south of Pittsburgh on the West Virginia border, with 129,000 residents — less than one-tenth of Philadelphia’s population. It includes the old coal-mining towns of Uniontown and Connellsville.
“We are mostly white, poor, with few well-paying jobs,” said James Stark, CEO of Fayette’s Community Action Agency. “We rank low in terms of health and income.”
In assessing New Jersey’s distinction as the premier state for kids, Save the Children analysts found that Hunterdon County, in the northwestern part of the state, is the nation’s best county for children.
Overall, New Jersey had six of the top 20 counties in America. None were in South Jersey. In fact, the worst county for kids in the Garden State was Cumberland (at No. 1,783), which is southeast of Gloucester County (No. 61) and includes Bridgeton and Vineland.
Pennsylvania ranked in the top 20 of U.S. states, according to the report. Bucks County was the highest rated county in the state, at No. 37 nationally. “Our local anti-hunger advocates doubled down on helping kids get good nutrition,” said Marissa Christie, president and CEO of United Way of Bucks County. “And we’ve improved access to high-quality early education.”
As for the national rankings of Philadelphia’s surrounding Pennsylvania counties, Chester came in at No. 91, Montgomery at No. 213, and Delaware at No. 439.
That Philadelphia, with 24.5% poverty, did so badly in the study did not come as a surprise.
“The report is telling us what we’ve known for decades,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “Without adequate nutrition — a longtime problem here — how are kids going to do better on other measures, such as health and education?”
Because the Save the Children report looked mostly at 2018 data, it didn’t include an analysis of how COVID-19 is affecting city children.
Fisher pointed out that on “our best COVID distribution days,” the city and its nonprofit partners are giving out from 25,000 to 30,000 meals to children. “But on a normal school day, we’d give out 130,000 meals,” she said. “So, during COVID, children are getting one-fourth the meals they’d normally get if they were in school.”
And, Fisher added, “what happens when extra unemployment checks disbursed for the pandemic stop coming at the end of July?”
According to the Save the Children report, Philadelphia’s child poverty rate of 34% ranked 2,858th out of 3,141 counties (more counties had data for this category).
Its child death rate (including homicide and suicide) was 72.3 per 100,000 from birth to age 18, a ranking of 1,999th out of 2,622 counties with available data.
The child hunger rate was 21.3%, or 2,123th out of 3,142 counties.
School dropout rate was 20.6%, ranking 2,775th out of 3,046.
The number of births to girls ages 15 to 19 was 24 per 1,000 live births, which ranked 1,695th out of 3,135 counties. The report noted this was Philadelphia’s best performing indicator.
These figures "certainly speak to how intractable poverty in Philadelphia is,” said sociologist Laura Napolitano of Rutgers-Camden. “We see inequality rising. It’s generational and deep-seated.”
In the wake of the George Floyd killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Napolitano said, it’s becoming more evident that cities like Philadelphia have low-income neighborhoods that are “over-policed." The resulting high rates of incarceration hobble young people for decades, with their criminal records precluding them from finding decent jobs, she said.
On the other end of the spectrum in New Jersey, children are very much the center of concern and care, according to Nancy Parello, spokesperson for Hunger Free New Jersey in Bergen County.
“We’re a wealthy state with pockets of poverty,” she said. “We’re progressive, and spend a lot and invest significantly in children. In rich counties like Hunterdon, Morris, or Bergen, children are getting all they need: good schools, nutritious food, great health care.”
The state is aided by the presence of well-off longtime residents, commuters with high-end New York City jobs, and a pharmaceutical industry that pumps millions into the economy, said Napolitano: “That New York money is no joke. Well-off families have the resources to give children advantages.”
But New Jersey is not without serious problems, as evidenced by childhood poverty in Camden, Newark, and other locales.
“We may be No. 1 in the nation, but we have a large equity gap,” said Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, based in Bergen County. “There are certainly areas of our state with concentrated poverty among people of color, and we need to address racial inequalities.”
Although New Jersey did well in the Save the Children report, “every state has pockets of promise and great disadvantage,” according to Shriver.
While America possesses the resources to help kids, he said, “it lacks the political will. We see people speak with passion about abortion and guns. Kids in poverty don’t get that same attention.