U.S.
Casey Rodgers/AP

Go north, young woman: Girl Scout survey reveals shortcomings of South

New research on well-being says regions vary widely in terms of education and health for potential recruits

If you want the best for your daughter, consider moving north. Where girls live in America matters to their overall comfort, health and prosperity, according to a report ranking every U.S. state and the District of Columbia.

The latest in a series of reports on girls’ health and well-being by the Girl Scouts Research Institute shows that girls generally fare better in the Midwest, Northeast and mid-Atlantic.

“It has to do partly with strong education,” said Mark Mather, the report’s lead researcher and a demographer with the Population Reference Bureau, a research organization in Washington, D.C.

New Hampshire ranked at the top, based on 23 indicators of education, extracurricular activities, economic well-being, emotional health and physical health and safety. The Dakotas, Minnesota, Massachusetts and New Jersey also ranked in the top 10.

The bottom states — including Mississippi (50th), Arkansas and Georgia — are mostly in the South. In all the low-ranking states, educational achievement and opportunities lagged.

States that offer preschool education and have lower high school dropout rates almost always ranked higher. “It tells the story of the importance of education for girls,” Mather said. “A lot of states are moving towards universal preschool. Getting a good start makes a difference for low-income families.”

Girl Scouts of the USA launched the research project in response to declining participation and the changing demographics apparently behind it. The Girl Scouts today have about 2.2 million youth members, down from nearly 2.9 million a decade ago.

The Girl Scouts today have about 2.2 million youth members, down from nearly 2.9 million a decade ago.

Almost a quarter of American girls ages 5 to 17 are Hispanic, and 14 percent are black; among girls in the same age group living in poverty, a third are Hispanic, and 38 percent are black.

“Girls are thriving in some areas, but there are portions of our population really left behind,” said Kamla Modi, senior researcher with the Girl Scout Research Institute and a co-author of the report. “It’s the first we’ve really seen how different the data is geographically. There are real issues girls are facing in the South.”

In Alabama (30th), where 30 percent of girls are African-American, the state was ranked 42nd in educational well-being and 34th in economic well-being. When Liz Brent, CEO of Girl Scouts of Southern Alabama, met recently with a state legislator to discuss the state’s poor ranking, “he thought it was a happy thing because we weren’t 48th,” she said. “This really did point [to] some issues we needed to focus on … It’s incumbent on us to be much more aggressive.”

Poverty is high in the more rural southern part of the state, and the Girl Scouts have partnered with major banks to launch financial literacy programs, Brent said.

“We have 112 councils all across the country, and we feel the research is critical to them,” Modi said. “It’s very, very important for our local chapters to have at their fingertips.”

In Connecticut, a state that fared well overall (sixth from the top), the Girl Scouts have been grappling with a drop in membership and volunteers, partly due to a rise in the Hispanic population. About 20 percent of girls in Connecticut are Hispanic. “That population for us is growing at a much faster pace than Caucasians,” said Mary Barneby, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Connecticut.

The number of Girl Scouts in Connecticut has fallen from 47,000 to 40,000 in the past three years.

‘Girls are thriving in some areas, but there are portions of our population really left behind. It’s the first we’ve really seen how different the data is geographically. There are real issues girls are facing in the South.’

Kamla Modi

senior researcher, Girl Scout Research Institute

The demographic shift has required a big change in the way Girl Scouts do business, because many Latinos are not familiar with the organization. For example, some Hispanic parents do not find it appropriate for their daughters to go to overnight camps, a common Girl Scout activity. That’s why now some troops in Connecticut hold day camps for the whole family and organize quinceañeras, traditional celebrations for Latinas when they turn 15. And there are madrinas programs to encourage Hispanic mothers to volunteer.

Getting volunteers has become a challenge as the number of girls raised by immigrants continues to rise. There are more than 30,000 girls on wait lists to join the Girl Scouts, partly because of a shortage of volunteers.

“It was important to learn more about the issues confronting girls on a state-by-state basis,” said Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA. “Our aim is to inspire a national dialogue about the challenges girls are facing in communities throughout America … Only once we know where girls are succeeding and where our society needs to do more to support them can we help girls reach their maximum potential.”

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