Best and Worst States to Raise Kids

Jennifer O'Neill
·Writer

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research grades each of the states in the country on paid leave and child care to reveal which locale supports families most. (Credit: Illustration by Erik Mace for Yahoo Parenting)

There’s yet another reason for people from the Empire State to sing, “I love New York.” It’s ranked No. 1 by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in a new report grading the lower 48 — plus Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia — on how effective each is in supporting working parents when it comes to paid leave and child care. 

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“Many workers lack access to even the most basic supports such as earned sick days and job-protected paid parental leave,” according to the report released on Wednesday titled, The Status of Women in the States: 2015. “Quality child care is also out of reach for many families because it is not affordable.” 

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New York topped the list with a B, followed by the California, District of Columbia, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, because of its family-friendly policies. “These are all the states that offer some kind of paid leave,” Jessica Milli, an economist at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research tells Yahoo Parenting. New York is No. 1, she adds, in part because their Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) gives 4 to 6 weeks paid maternity leave. (California is the only state, though, in which workers are covered by TDI, family leave insurance, and can earn paid sick days, per the report). “The states on the bottom of the list don’t have any of those policies in place, so they’re really at a disadvantage.” 

The “worst” state is Indiana, with Utah and Montana on its heels. Each received an F. The next closest two — Mississippi and Wyoming — weren’t far behind with D- grades. 

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Click to enlarge (Photo: Institute for Women’s Policy Research).

Why is there such disparity between all of the states in the country? “It’s the outcome of very minimal federal standards on these issues,” Ariane Hegewisch, study director at IWPR, told Think Progress. “You need to set basic standards,” she urged. “The differences shouldn’t be too big between states.” 

But the state of the union is exactly that: a patchwork of policies that aren’t measuring up to fight the pressures working families often face. “In half of all families with children, women are the primary or co-breadwinner,” Hegewisch writes in the report. “As mothers’ labor force participation has dramatically increased in the past decades … and the number of women and men aged 50 and older who provide care for a parent has tripled during the last 15 years…the development of an infrastructure to support workers with family caregiving responsibilities has been largely neglected.” 

Without support from the states addressing paid leave and childcare, many women — who comprise the large majority of family caregivers — “are forced to make difficult decisions between keeping their jobs and caring for their family members,” she added. 

Sufficient paid leave is a national problem. The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world without a national paid maternity leave law, according to the IWPR, and one of a small minority of high-income countries that does not require employers to provide paid sick days. As Think Progress reveals from this data, “Workers in 40 states don’t have any guarantee that they will get paid family or sick leave from their employer.” 

According to Milli, “Lots of research out there shows that having paid time off, paid sick time, is one of the primary factors that determine if someone can stay home with their sick kid or if they will have to send that kid to school or daycare while sick, which has horrible consequences.”

But the rub, she notes, is that “The states that have those paid family leave policies, paid sick days policies, those also seem to have higher costs of childcare as well.” Take New York. It’s one of the top 5 states but also ranked an abysmal 48 in terms of the cost of childcare. The cost of infant care as a percent of women’s median annual earnings is 33.1 percent, says Milli. In contrast, Alabama doesn’t have paid leave days or paid sick days but ranks No. 1 in terms of childcare, with only 16.8 percent of women’s median annual earnings going toward that expense. “That undoes some of the good that those policies can create,” she says. “So that’s one of the reasons why New York didn’t get an A.” 

Child care and education ratings by state were based on factors including access and affordability, number of hours provided by public programs, and training and support required of providers and teachers. And the report found that there are only four states—Alabama, Alaska, North Carolina, and Rhode Island—which meet all ten of the the National Institute for Early Childhood Education’s quality standards, but in all of these states coverage rates are 35 percent or less. Access to programs in Florida and Texas, in contrast, was the best, but few of them met the standards.

“It’s a huge issue because if parents can’t get their kids into those programs, that’s a child at home who has nowhere to go,” says Milli. “That makes an enormous impact on families incomes if someone has to stay home — that’s someone could have been working but isn’t. It puts families in a tougher financial situation. And we know from previous research that if all these women staying out of the workforce, usually for childcare reasons, were added back into the workforce they would generate billions of dollars in economic activity.” 

Yet working parents shouldn’t lose heart. “Part of what needs to happen is already happening on the state and local level,” says Milli. “Ongoing campaigns in states without paid leave are really gaining ground.” 

So while she acknowledges that it’s “depressing” that there isn’t even one state rated A, Milli insists, “We’re moving forward to rectify it to help these families out.” 

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