Do Thriving Economies Lead to Thriving Children?

This blog is a joint piece by North Dakota KIDS COUNT and DC Action for Children. We are grateful to be a part of the KIDS COUNT network, a collective of child advocates around the US working to ensure that ALL children in our country have the resources and support they need to succeed.

Budget surpluses, industry and labor growth and high per capita gross domestic product are just a few indicators of healthy economies. These desirable attributes signal that resources and capital flow through markets. Since the Great Recession, states track these indicators to monitor their progress. Many face persistent challenges regarding high unemployment, job creation and balancing budgets. Over the last five years, some have rebounded and seen improvements. North Dakota and the District of Columbia are two such localities.

So here’s the question: When a state’s economy thrives, does that mean resident children do too?

Similar yet different, DC and North Dakota provide interesting case studies to answer this question.

While the geographically small and urban DC may seem very unlike vast and rural North Dakota, these locations have striking similarities in population size and growth. These localities have the two fastest growing populations in the US when ranked among all 50 states and DC, including growth in the under 18 population. The table below shows population changes in the last year.  


Size in
square miles

Total Population

Child Population

Households 2013


% Change from 2012


% Change from 2012

District of Columbia



(2nd fastest)


(2nd fastest)


North Dakota



3.1% (fastest) 




Sources: Population - U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, Table 1. Annual Estimates of the Population for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2013 (NST-EST2013-01); Households – U.S. Census Bureau, 2013 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table DP02.

As DC and North Dakota lead in population change, they rank highly in some key economic indicators:


District of Columbia

North Dakota

Growth in Median Household Income (in 2013 dollars),
2010 to 2013

(3rd fastest)


Per Capita Income, 2013


(6th highest)

Growth in Employment, 2010 to 2013

(22nd fastest)


Per Capita Real Gross Domestic Product, 2013 (chained 2009 dollars)


(3rd highest)

FY 2013 Budget  Surplus*


(FY2013 CAFR)


Projected General Fund Budget Surplus for June 30, 2015*


$577M (ND OMB)

*Note: Both DC and North Dakota have large budget surpluses. However, the two places have different budget cycles. DC has an annual budget while North Dakota has a biennial budget.


The table above provides evidence that, as far as states go, DC and North Dakota are doing fairly well. Money flows through markets and there is money in the bank. GDP is high and the government has more than enough to continue running and providing certain services. Good news in a post-recession US and shaky international economic landscape.

While these indicators provide one perspective on the economic health of a state, as the KIDS COUNT grantees, we track a different set of indicators that measure economic well-being focused on children and their families. The indicators above show that these places do well at an aggregate level; however, all too often the benefits of a thriving economy do not trickle down to improve the lives of everyone, especially the youngest residents.

Despite economic growth, neither locality significantly reduced child poverty in recent years. According to the 2014 KIDS COUNT National Data Book, North Dakota made almost no progress in child poverty from 2005 to 2012. DC reduced child poverty by 5%, but still has almost 30,000 children living at or below the poverty line. In both localities, there are areas where more than half of children live in poverty.  Children of color are most deeply affected by these high levels of poverty; over 40% of African-American children in DC and Native American children in North Dakota live in poverty. This illustrates significant disparities in well-being and opportunity for children living in low-income communities within economically prosperous localities.

So how can we support the economic well-being of children in low-income households? We must address structural and systemic barriers that keep all children from reaching their full potential:

1. Ensure ALL children have access to high quality early care and education opportunities.

North Dakota and DC demonstrate the need for comprehensive birth to 5 systems of care and education. North Dakota has the capacity to provide licensed child care for 40 percent of children who potentially need it (and in five counties, the ability to meet demand drops below 10%).[1] In addition, North Dakota is one of a handful of states that does not offer a statewide preschool program – two-thirds of children do not attend preschool. And while DC has achieved universal pre-k with over 70% of children enrolled, it lacks the child care capacity to support working parents and children’s early learning, meeting only 25 percent of the potential need.[2] Research indicates that high quality early learning environments contribute to future success; the opportunity is even greater for children in low-income households who may not have access to resources at home or by other means. Young children and their families need systems that provide continuous, comprehensive opportunities so that children may thrive.

2. Provide opportunities and supports for parents to gain workforce skills.

To ensure that children and their families benefit from the economic prosperity of the state, adults must have the skills and training necessary to participate in the labor force and earn sufficient wages to support families. In North Dakota, 30% of low income families with children have at most a high school diploma compared to 6% of higher income families; in DC the respective numbers are almost double-- 59% compared to 15%. Research suggests that even a slight increase in income can have a significant impact on childhood outcomes. To ensure that all residents, and especially families with children, benefit from a thriving economy, adults must have access to education and training that provide skills necessary to participate in local industries.

3. Prioritize children by investing in them.

As stated previously, the child population is growing rapidly in both North Dakota and DC. Many government agency budgets contain spending plans for programs that serve children, but it is often unclear which line items support direct services and resources to children and their families. In order to see that KIDS really COUNT, child-focused budgets detailing spending on child- and family-centered programs can allow policymakers and stakeholders to track and monitor investments to benefit children. Furthermore, it will allow us to better gauge whether or not programs are funded at appropriate levels for the need as demographics and populations shift over time.

Although North Dakota and DC may be thriving, child poverty rates reflect that not everyone is benefitting from this economic prosperity. By prioritizing children and their families, especially those in low-income households, decision-makers can work to ensure that KIDS COUNT and all residents can thrive.

[1] ND is referencing licensed child care capacity for children 0-13 as a percentage of 0-13 year olds with working parents.

[2] DC is referencing licensed child care for infants and toddlers as a percentage of all infants and toddlers in the city.