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The absolute best place to grow up in America

Where the children are all above average. (Christopher Ingraham/The Washington Post)

Few things are more gratifying than brand-new data that validates your life choices.

This week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published its 26th annual Kids Count report, an investigation into trends in health, education and economic well-being among the nation's kids.

For the headline-making part of their report, the foundation's researchers ranked the states on 16 indicators of child well-being: children in poverty, educational attainment, single-parent families, low-birth-weight babies, kids without health insurance, school test scores, etc. They then mashed all these rankings up into a composite score, using pretty standard statistical methods, to come up with an overall rank of the best states in the United States for child well-being — the best places to raise a kid, in other words.

The state at the absolute top of the list, for the second year in a row, was (drum roll please ...) Minnesota. Want your kids to grow up healthy, wealthy and wise? Haul 'em off to the North Star State.

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You know that whole Garrison Keillor schtick about Minnesota? "Where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are all above average?" Turns out there's something to it — at least as far as kids are concerned.

It's important that you understand I'm telling you this not just as a data nerd sitting at a desk with my nose buried in a spreadsheet, but as someone who literally just moved his entire family to Minnesota in search of a better life.

Granted, I've only been here for a couple months, so the natural experiment I'm running on my 2-year-old boys has yet to yield results. For full results, check back in 16 years or so.

The Casey Foundation has been compiling these rankings for years now. Minnesota is one state that's been on an upward trajectory, from sixth overall in 2012 to first in 2014. Iowa is upwardly mobile, too, going from eighth to third over the same period.

Other states are falling in the rankings. Maryland, my previous home state, has dropped from 10th to 16th in child well-being. But perhaps the most discouraging news in the report is what's happening at the absolute bottom of the rankings: nothing at all.

The four worst states today are the same states that were dead-last in 2012. Mississippi has been the absolute worst place in America to raise a kid for five out of the last six years. Mississippi's crowning child-health achievement in the past six years is its brief jump from 50th to 49th place in 2013.

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Now granted these are rankings. And if you're just looking at rankings, someone will always have to be in last place regardless of which direction the raw numbers are moving in.

But the Casey Foundation's data show the very real challenges faced by children in the Southern part of the country. We've written about them here on Wonkblog before: Crushing poverty. Food insecurity. Impoverished schools and mind. Crumbling family structures.

What's most striking about the Casey Foundation's data is its stark illustration of how geography is destiny. Take a look at the map of overall rankings this year, for instance. Not a single one of the top-ranked states is below the 36°30' parallel, the line that delineated the boundary between new slave and free states in the Missouri Compromise. Conversely only two of the bottom-ranked states — Nevada and West Virginia, are located above that line.

You wouldn't think that an arbitrary geographic boundary drawn by politicians nearly 200 years ago could continue to reverberate through society today. But there it is, staring you right in the face. You see similar geographic divides when you map out the individual indicators in the report, as we did last year.

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