No one wants to think about their kids not growing up and becoming thriving, happy, successful human beings. Most of us don't care if our kids grow up rich, as long as they make decent financial choices. You also probably don't care whether they get married or stay single, as long as your kids grow up to act kind and seem fulfilled. You just hope they turn out "good" — whatever that means. But it takes more than just hopes and dreams or thoughts and prayers to help our kids thrive. There are key factors that can play monumental roles in making sure children grow into fully functioning adults. And, if those factors aren't all available for a child, according to children’s developmental experts, it can lead to an “at-risk youth” label.
While there are a ton of factors at play in the growth and development of children, WalletHub released a report on July 12 showing that even something as simple as where a family lives can have a significant impact on a child. But what are the exact things about certain areas that keep kids down and lead to generational struggles? To that end, a new WalletHub study explored the states with the most and least at-risk youth — and the factors that led to where each state landed on the list.
What factors can put a youth "at risk?"
According to Study.com, “An at-risk youth is one whose chances at a successful transition to adult life are hindered by certain circumstances or factors experienced during their childhood. A young person facing one or more of these factors will have a more challenging time growing academically, maturing socially, and contributing to the community and workforce.”
So, what are some of the factors that can hinder a child’s successful transition into a healthy, happy, and productive adulthood?
WalletHub identified various key metrics that come into play when raising kids, all of which can determine whether kids are "at risk" or less likely to grow into thriving adults. What did these metrics look like? They come from two categories: health/wellness, and education and employment.
In the broadest sense of parenting, keeping your kids healthy and educated to the best of your ability will go a long way in helping them succeed in life. However, WalletHub dove deeper than that and laid it all out. They looked at 16 specific metrics within each state that they deemed most critical in developing an at-risk youth:
- Share of disconnected youth (youth between 18-24 not attending school, not working, and/or without a degree after high school)
- Share of youth with no high school diploma
- Share of NAEP-proficient students (NAEP is the National Assessment of Educational Progress)
- Labor force participation rate among youth aged 16-24
- Share of AFQT testers scoring at or above 50 (AFQT is the Armed Forces Qualification Test)
- Youth (ages 18-24) poverty rate
- Rate of teen pregnancy
- Share of homeless youth (ages 18-24)
- Presence of "state tuition waiver programs" or scholarship/grant programs for youth in foster care
- Rate of youth detained, incarcerated, or placed in residential facilities per 100,000
- Share of population aged 12 and older fully vaccinated
- Share of overweight and obese youth (ages 18-24)
- Share of youth (18-25) using illicit drugs in the past month
- Share of youth (18-24) reporting heavy drinking
- Share of youth (18-24) with depression
- Share of physically, mentally, and emotionally inhibited youth (18-24)
Which states have the least at-risk youth?
Let's be real: Even if you live in the state with the least at-risk youth (Massachusetts), your child isn't necessarily "out of the woods." In fact, since the definition of at-risk youth is so sweeping, you could say all youth are at risk in some way. Many of these factors listed above also come into play on a more granular level, like school district funding or simply parental support.
However, according to WalletHub’s data, the following states have the least at-risk youth:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- Rhode Island
Why does the research suggest kids are less at-risk in these states? They have better programs in place to help students/youth succeed. Minnesota, for instance, requires all kids to undergo free developmental screenings that help the state know who might best benefit from preschool. From there, they offer many different options to help parents access and afford early education. New Jersey also consistently lands higher up on state-by-state education rankings.
Which states have the most at-risk youth?
- West Virginia
- South Carolina
- District of Columbia
Why might these states put a youth more at risk? In 2017, Louisiana was ranked the worst education system in America. Alabama, meanwhile, has the current lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate. It's important to remember that there are many, many vaccinations a student needs for school, but the lack of COVID vaccinations shows mistrust in science and the government, as well as a priority placement over "personal freedoms" instead of public health. All of those things come into play when raising a child successfully.
What does all this mean?
That's up for interpretation. Like all studies, this one cannot possibly account for every variable or factor in all the metrics that make individual families more or less likely to nurture kids into well-adjusted adults. And it goes without saying that not everyone can afford to move states just to get their kid somewhere with the kind of structure, support, funding, and programs that help youth thrive. (Poverty itself is considered one of the primary predictors of at-risk youth, which is a circumstance outside of the control of a child — and, often — their family.) What research can’t spell out is how much privilege plays a part in these numbers.
Perhaps, then, the biggest takeaway from WalletHub's research is that systemic reform is needed across states so that all youth, regardless of socioeconomic status, have equal access to the education and programs that encourage successful transitions into adulthood.
As for what you can do, as a parent, to help your child avoid falling at risk, the organization At Risk Youth Programs recommends four things: talk to your kid (and really listen, in return), communicate with their teachers, get to know their friends, and take a genuine interest in the hobbies and activities they enjoy.