Utah children sliding in well-being ranking

Jun 24 2013 - 12:15am

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Utah has slipped in its ranking of child well-being in the past few years, according to the 2013 Kids Count Profile published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Now ranked 14th in the nation, according to 16 indicators studied in the profile, the state has slipped from 11th last year and as high as third- and fourth-place in other recent years.

"We've seen a drop surely but surely," said Terry Haven, deputy director of Voices for Utah Children, who pointed to improvements in the efforts of other states as the reason for the fall.

"We are falling behind because we are stagnating," she said. "We are not improving. ... If we want to keep our ranking, we want to make sure kids are out of poverty."

According to the profile, which looked at 2011 data, Utah worsened in all of the four indicators studied for economic well-being.

The biggest change for the worse was in children whose parents lack secure employment. That statistic went from 19 percent in 2008 to 25 percent in 2011.

The state worsened in half of the areas studied for family and community and in one each in the areas of education and health.

Haven said proposed administrative changes in the way Utah does CHIP and Medicare would help the state's children as well as its ranking in the profile.

She said finding ways to help children get and stay on Medicaid would improve their circumstances. She said the state has not approved an expansion of the Medicaid program here as other states have.

"We need to remove the waiting period for legal immigrant children to access services," she said, pointing to a current five-year wait.

She said other ways Utah could improve its situation are to focus efforts on preschool for at-risk kids and getting children out of poverty.

In addition to this national report, Voices for Utah Children in April each year puts out its own report that studies twice as many data points as the national profile.

"We need good data to effect good policy change," Haven said. "We need to see where we need to concentrate our efforts."

However, Haven also complimented Utah's statistics, saying they are better than the surrounding states.

Along with the release of the profile, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has announced an updated website that is designed to help the nation and states with data regarding the well-being of children.

Found at datacenter.kidscount.org, the site allows anyone who is interested in the data several search engines to help them easily download the information.

A report issued with the profile said researchers are getting better at studying the issues of child well-being in the country across the domains of economic well-being, education, health and family and community.

"This multifaceted index provides a more complex picture of child well-being in each state, especially in cases where a state excels in one or two areas but lags behind in others," states the profile.

Nationally, the profile points to three troubling trends in the area of family and community.

"First, we see lingering effects of the recession and continued high unemployment. Second, disparities among children by income and family structure continue to grow. ... Third, our nation's youngest children are disproportionately affected by these negative trends," states Patrick T. McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation in an explanation of the profile.

But McCarthy offers a glimpse of hope in the profile.

"Overall, national math and reading scores have steadily improved over time for students of all races and income levels," he states. "The charge that American students are falling behind comes from international comparisons, which typically rank the United States in the top third or half, depending on the age of students and subject matter being tested. But when researchers disaggregate the data, it becomes clear that our nation's overall achievement levels are limited by the performance of our lowest-income students."

He states that in 2009, students at U.S. schools with fewer than 10 percent of students in poverty ranked No.1 in reading. Therefore, it would seem that addressing poverty would be key to addressing education issues.

The profile states that children in poverty, for the most part, are not entering kindergarten prepared to learn.

And McCarthy points to economic indicators as the most troubling finding in this year's report.

"The child poverty rate increased to 23 percent in 2011, two years after the recession had ended," he states. "Even more disturbing is the fact that the poverty rate for very young children -- those under 3 years old -- was 26 percent. These statistics are based on a very conservative measure of hardship, meaning the percentage of children living in economically fragile homes is considerably higher."

And McCarthy said understanding the way the data is gathered is important to understanding the real picture.

"The official poverty line in 2011 was $22,811 for a family of two adults and two children, while researchers estimate that families typically need twice that amount to meet their basic needs," the profile states.

Also of concern is a trend for children to live in concentrated poverty.

"About 12 percent of children lived in neighborhoods where 30 percent or more of households have incomes below the poverty line, putting those children at higher risk of experiencing crime, violence and physical and mental health problems," the profile states.

But the profile points to a bright spot among the family and community indicators -- a national record low level of births to teens.

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