By Tony Gonzalez, The Tennessean
The days of "Thank God for Mississippi" are no more.
For the first time in decades, Mississippi no longer ranks as the worst state in which to be a child, according to the newest "Kids Count" data released today by The Annie E. Casey Foundation. The numbers evaluate child well-being through 2010 and 2011.
Mississippi's perpetually low rankings for health and education became a bane for state officials while sparing other low-ranking states from the shame of being the worst.
That distinction now falls to New Mexico.
Increasing poverty, more single-parent homes and continuing high unemployment combined to sink that state. And on measurements that improved, such as preschool attendance, New Mexico's modest gains were outpaced by Mississippi's.
Tennessee, meanwhile, ranked 39th for overall child well-being, down three positions from the prior year. The state's struggles with poverty persist, with a fourth of all Tennessee children living in poverty.
Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, said the dip disappointed her because it reversed a recent climb in the rankings. The commission published its annual state data two weeks ago, and the rankings give it some national context.
Tennessee improved in such areas as preschool attendance, high school graduation rate and some aspects of health.
However, other states' health scores showed more dramatic improvement, pushing Tennessee into 33rd place in that category just one year after it made a surprising jump into the top half of states.
O'Neal attributed the decline to slightly more children being uninsured and more teens found to have used drugs or alcohol compared to the prior year.
"Frankly, we were a little surprised last year," she said.
In terms of education, Tennessee still ranks 42nd nationally, with access to preschool lagging.
"We know when we give young children the opportunity to participate, we increase their prospects to succeed in school," O'Neal said.
The new national analysis includes a number of trends, including:
• A historically low teen birth rate.
• Math proficiency improvements in 46 states.
• More children than ever with health insurance.
Child advocates in New Mexico blamed the dip there on a slow recovery from the recession.
Officials in Mississippi said in a news release: "While New Mexico is doing worse in some indicators, the change in rankings is more closely tied to the fact that Mississippi is doing better than they have in years past."