It’s All Relative

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Snail cutting off a turtle that is yelling, "Maniac!"

I was reading an article in the Providence Journal about Rhode Island’s 2013 national KIDS COUNT ranking and noticed that, while doing well in several categories—including children covered by health insurance and child deaths—this small northeastern state is struggling when compared to the rest of New England.

Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont are all ranked among the top 10 states for child well-being, while Rhode Island didn’t crack the top 20. Though doing well when compared to our Southern region, Rhode Island, with its perfectly average 26th-place ranking, is dealing with more adversity than many of its regional neighbors.

On the flip side, Georgia and our counterparts in the bottom 10 (Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina) would rejoice at a 26th-place ranking. However, like Rhode Island, it’s all about context.

Georgia is ranked 43rd in overall child well-being. If we simply home in on that ranking, Georgia’s prospects for positive change seem bleak. However, in context—comparing Georgia over the years to our neighbors, and looking at the vast social, geographic, and economic differences among the country’s regions—a more hopeful picture emerges.

In the context of Georgia’s story, low birthweight, obesity, and the literacy gap are threatening our health, safety, and ability to prosper, so we’re engaged in a Low Birthweight Initiative, Childhood Obesity Prevention Initiative, and the Early Childhood—Grade-Level-Reading Campaign. These are lead indicators that determine the well-being of children later in life, and they are connected to several other indicators.

Rankings help bring a national picture into focus and generate annual buzz, but it’s also critical to drill down and take a look at what’s happening in individual states and regions. As is often the case, context is key to our understanding.