Arizona’s high school graduation rate fell in the new Kids Count report, with 22 percent of high school students not graduating within four years, compared to 15 percent nationally. These graduates are from Amphitheater High School.

Arizona’s annual family checkup saw a bit of growth this year, but overall the state’s care of its children is still not on target.

That’s according to the findings of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count report, which shows Arizona is not keeping up with improvements being made in other states when it comes to multiple categories including education, health, poverty, and family and community factors.

The new report, which is mostly based on 2017 data, does show the state’s overall poverty ranking has improved for the first time in years, dropping from the 43rd-highest poverty rate among U.S. states in 2018 to 37th this year.

The number of children growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods also improved, moving to 47th place after ranking 49th last year.

Even with these small gains, the overall picture remains grim: One in five children in Arizona lives in poverty and children here are much more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than children growing up in other states.

The report measures 16 indicators of children’s health, education and security and ranks the states from one to 50, with one being the state with the best conditions. New Hampshire ranked first in overall child well-being in this report, while Arizona dropped from 45th to 46th.

Looking at 11 of the 16 measures, things have improved nationwide since 1990. The teen birth rate has fallen 68 percent, to a new low, and the percentage of children without health insurance dropped by 62 percent. The percentages of young children attending preschool and of teens graduating from high school increased.

But in Arizona, poverty continues to pose the great threat to children’s success, said Dana Wolfe Naimark, CEO of the state’s Children’s Action Alliance, an independent research and advocacy group that lobbies lawmakers on policy issues affecting children’s well-being, and provides Arizona data for Kids Count.

Poverty affects health, educational outcomes and a child’s earning potential when they become adults, Naimark said.

“A growing economy does not automatically translate into better conditions for children and families,” she said. “Arizona has seen significant economic growth since the Great Recession, but many children and families and many communities continue to struggle. It takes combined community effort and strategic public policies to help more children grow up safer and healthier.”

Elizabeth Berry, a spokeswoman for Gov. Doug Ducey, said there have been improvements in recent years and that “Arizona has always placed a priority on the well-being and education of children across the state.

“While our work is never done to help Arizona’s children, in this most recent budget Arizona made significant investments in the health and welfare of children by investing $1.6 million to eliminate the KidsCare freeze, preserving access to health care for over 6,000 kids from low-income families, $2.4 million to expand the kinship stipend to all kinship caregivers and $56 million for childcare subsidies for low-income, working families,” she wrote in an email to the Arizona Daily Star on Friday.

“This comes in addition to $661 million in new dollars for K-12 public schools in the budget.”

Advocates say more is needed.

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Arizona departed from the continued national trend in improving high school graduation rates, with an increase to 22 percent of high school students not graduating within four years compared to 15 percent nationally, placing the state 46th compared to 43rd last year.

“That got worse here from 2016 to 2017, but that was not the case elsewhere,” Naimark said.

Another trend that needs improvement, Naimark said: The number of Arizona children living in households that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing in 2017 rose from the year before, placing Arizona 39th in the country for that year compared to 38th the year before.

This so-called “rent burden” improved nationally for the seventh year in a row, but a third of the children nationwide still live in families struggling with housing costs.

Children in minority families are more likely to experience financial instability tied to rent burden, the report shows, with 38 percent of Latino children affected in Arizona in 2017, compared to 24 percent of white children.

“On any given night in 2018, nearly 10,000 Arizonans were homeless,” said Joan Serviss, executive director of the Arizona Housing Coalition.

“High housing-cost burdens make it nearly impossible for working families to accumulate emergency savings to respond to unexpected costs or loss of income, and can lead to eviction. Our state and federal leaders need to do more to address this economic threat.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@tucson.com or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar

Reporter

Patty covers issues pertaining to children and families as well as people living with disabilities. She previously reported on court cases, with an emphasis on juvenile court. She has worked for the Arizona Daily Star since 2001.