The Best And Worst States To Raise Kids

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As a country, the United States is the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee paid family leave or paid sick days, and it ranks toward the bottom for how much it spends on early childhood education. But things are even spottier at the state level.

In a new report, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has for the first time graded each state on how well it supports working parents and, in particular, working women when it comes to paid leave, elder and child care, and the share of parents of young children who are in the labor force. Not a single state got a top grade; the highest ranked were California, New York, and Washington, D.C., which all got B grades. Three states, Indiana, Utah, and Montana, got failing grades. “It’s the outcome of very minimal federal standards on these issues,” said Ariane Hegewisch, study director at IWPR and the lead author on the report.

California, the highest ranking state for paid leave, is the only one that guarantees both paid family leave and paid sick leave. (Rhode Island and New Jersey also have paid family leave, while Connecticut and Massachusetts require paid sick days.) By contrast, workers in 40 states don’t have any guarantee that they will get paid family or sick leave from their employer.


CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Child care presents an even more complicated picture. IWPR looked at three metrics: the cost of full-time center care for an infant as a proportion of the median earnings for women in a state, how many four-year-olds are enrolled in public preschools, and what policies are in place to ensure quality. Costs range from less than 17 percent of women’s earnings in Alabama to more than a third in Washington, D.C.

But getting child care isn’t just about cost, but also about whether a family can find an open slot in a high-quality setting. “Only a few states provide both high Pre-K access and high-quality preschool education,” the report notes. For example, four states — Alabama Alaska, North Carolina, and Rhode Island — meet all of the quality standards put forward by the National Institute for Early Childhood Education, but just 35 percent or less of those states’ four-year-olds have access to a program. On the other hand, Florida and Texas rank near the top for access but meet few of the quality standards. Just Washington, D.C., has 100 of its four-year-olds enrolled in publicly funded programs; access ranks as low as just 12 percent of preschoolers enrolled in New Hampshire.

Some states have other ways of helping working mothers. Five states protect workers from discrimination related to child care responsibilities. Forty-five states protect them from pregnancy discrimination, while 14 and Washington, D,C., have passed laws that require employers to give pregnant employees reasonable accommodations so they can keep working through their pregnancies.

But the laws and benefits are clearly a random patchwork, which leaves parents in different states of limbo depending on where they live. “You need to set basic standards,” Hegewisch said. “The differences shouldn’t be too big between states.” Congressional lawmakers have proposed national paid family, paid sick leave, and universal preschool, but none of them have moved forward.

Creating a minimum floor of support for working parents wouldn’t just help them, but also the economy. Perhaps at least in part because of this unpredictability from state to state, the share of mothers with children under six who are in the labor force varies considerably, from just 53 percent in Utah to 80 percent in South Dakota. Men’s rates don’t fluctuate at nearly the same rate, however, ranging from 89 percent in Maine to 98 percent in Wyoming, illustrating that the burden of not having adequate work support falls more heavily on women’s shoulders. Other research has found that the United States has been falling behind other developed countries in how many women work because we fail to guarantee paid leave and quality childcare.

But women’s labor force participation contributes a huge amount to the economy: it would be 11 percent smaller if they hadn’t dramatically increased how much they work since the 1970s.