This week, KIDS COUNT released its 32nd annual data book comparing child well-being in all 50 states. For the fourth year in a row, North Dakota has ranked top in the nation for the economic well-being of children and families. KIDS COUNT is an organization dedicated to data, which is critical to informed policymaking. However, one data point does not tell us the whole story. Without context, we cannot develop effective solutions. Let’s dig into the data to see what it tells us.

For some families in North Dakota, this number one ranking feels accurate. They have secure employment and can pay for necessities like a home, food, gas and a little for savings. However, this is not the case for everyone, and many children and families are getting left behind, especially kids and families of color. Over 18,000 North Dakota children live in poverty. That is the equivalent of every single second and third grade child in the state living without adequate housing, food or other essential needs. These children are at higher risk for experiencing behavioral, social, and emotional health challenges. A family of three lives in poverty if they make less than $21,960 per year, but we know that is hardly enough to meet basic needs.

Because of racist and discriminatory policies and practices, not all children and families have the same access to economic opportunities. In North Dakota, Black, Indigenous and other children of color experience higher poverty rates compared to the overall rate of 11 percent. These outcomes are the direct product of past and ongoing policies and decisions. The legacy for American Indian families is shaped by generations of anti-indigenous policy, including the military campaign that the federal government waged against tribal nations that relocated entire communities to reservations, which today are often farther away from population centers, infrastructure and access to economic opportunity. This means generation after generation, American Indian families have missed out on the same opportunities to build wealth that other families had. The examples do not stop here.

North Dakota must do better to ensure all children have the economic resources they need to thrive. As the state recovers from the pandemic, now is the time to invest in children and families:

  • All families should make living wages. A parent with one child who works full-time at minimum wage still lives in poverty. It is time for the minimum wage to be more than poverty wages – it should be set at a level where people can afford the basic necessities.

  • Make sure families have a safe, affordable place to call home. The most recent data shows that one in six children live in unaffordable housing. When housing is too expensive, families cannot afford other necessities like gas or food.

  • Families need affordable child care. Full-time child care costs as much as in-state tuition at NDSU. When child care is financially out of reach, families cannot work.

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Imagine a state where all North Dakota children grow up with the financial resources to thrive. Better investments for children and families can help North Dakota live up to its “best in the country” ranking.

Xanna Burg is the coordinator for North Dakota KIDS COUNT, a leading resource for data on child and family well-being in the state.