Missouri gets mixed report card on child well-being
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2009 - Missouri ranks 33rd among U.S. states when it comes to child well-being, a new study says.
Since 2000, Missouri has improved on four child-welfare indicators: child death rate, teen death rate, teen birth rate and the percentage of teens who are high-school dropouts. However, it did worse on three indicators: the percentage of low-birthweight babies, infant mortality rate and child poverty rate.
Three other indicators in Missouri -- the percent of teens not in school or working, percent of children living in families without an employed parent and the percent of kids in single-parent families -- didn't change.
The state drops down one spot from last year's ranking in the Kids Count study.
The Kids Count study ranks states on 10 indicators of child well-being, including economic, health and educational factors. The study is conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, based in Baltimore. The foundation works with Citizens for Missouri's Children (CMC), a child advocacy group based in St. Louis, to get data for Missouri.
While Missouri ranked in the bottom half of states, Illinois came in at 24th, making it into the top half of states.
MORE CHILDREN LIVING IN POVERTY
The study found that Missouri's child poverty rate increased from 16 to 18 percent between 2000 and 2007. About 900,000 more children are now living in poverty nationwide since 2000.
Emily Schwartze, CMC's director of programs and policy, said the poverty rate is the best indicator of children's economic security, and she found the increase "disappointing."
She warns that the most recent data were gathered before the economic recession started.
"We know that because of the recession and because of the economic downturn there are many more families living in need," Schwartze said. "Health-care costs have skyrocketed, unemployment is up and many more already vulnerable families may be in more need, causing many more of Missouri's children to be in need."
Schwartze said Missouri could see "an even more significant increase" in the child poverty rate when the data from 2008 and 2009 can be incorporated.
In better news, the child death rate dropped by 22 percent between 2000 and 2006, going from 27 to 21 deaths per 100,000 children aged 1-14. What made that drop so notable, Schwartze said, was that it outpaced the national decrease of 14 percent.
The teen death rate dropped between 2000 and 2006 by 3 percent but remains among the worst -- 41st -- in the country.
The teen birth rate fell from 49 to 46 births per 1,000 teens between 2000 and 2006 but rose from 42 in 2005.
The percentage of low-birthweight babies increased 7 percent between 2000 and 2006, and the infant mortality rate increased 3 percent, but the national rates for both measures decreased.
Click here for the data and maps for these indicators and other economic, health and educational statistics.
CURRENT AND FUTURE CHALLENGES
Kate Tansey, clinical director of the Catholic Family Services of St. Louis, said the Missouri Kids Count data can be useful to guide policy and advocacy. Her organization uses the Kids Count data when applying for funding and grants.
Tansey was also campaign manager for St. Louis County's Putting Kids First, a quarter-cent sales tax passed last November for providing mental-health and substance-abuse-prevention services for children. Tansey said the Kids Count data strongly reflect the campaign's own independent assessments.
St. Louis County joins St. Charles County, St. Louis, Lincoln County and Franklin County, which all have Putting Kids First. Since passing the program in 2004, St. Charles County has seen more kids finish high school and fewer kids become pregnant, Tansey said can also reduce the number of low-birthweight babies and infant mortality rate.
But advocates say the recession could severely worsen problems and perhaps wipe out recent improvements across all measures of child well-being --- especially since poverty can be the gateway to other problems, such as poor health, lower education and higher teen pregnancy rates.
"Everything across the board could get worse before it gets better," Tansey said.
Also troubling, Schwartze said, is that government has more children to help, but less tax money to work with.
"That makes our jobs as advocates that much more important," Schwartze said. "We want to make sure that the money they do have is spent on programs that matter."
Schwartze said she was disappointed to see $25 million in cuts to the Missouri Department of Social Services' budget. She also expressed disappointment that state-level proposals to expand children's health-care coverage and restore coverage to 35,000 low-income parents failed.
FUTURE OF THE KIDS COUNT SURVEY
Down the road, several challenges could cloud efforts to collect information. Patrick McCarthy, senior vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said some areas continually suffer from sparse data. Government should continue funding data collection at current levels despite the recession, he said.
The Kids Count report also encourages the government to boost funding for national data collection and improve collection of data on children and minorities in the 2010 census.
The Census Bureau's decision to do only a short-form census in 2010 could also mean less information to work with. Schwartze said the Census Bureau will rely more on its three- and five-year estimates; that could mean changes in how Kids Count data are collected. She wasn't sure how that would affect consistency and accuracy of the study's results.
Still, she said the change means Kids Count can do data estimates for smaller areas, such as like legislative districts.
Finally, McCarthy said the definition of poverty needs to be changed because it is outdated. Policymakers defined the poverty level in the 1960s as three times the annual cost of food for a household. But today, he said, households spend only about one-seventh of their incomes on food.
Puneet Kollipara, an intern at the Beacon, is a student at Washington University.