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Do kids count in Missouri? Report from Citizens for Missouri's Children gives mixed picture

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2009 - St. Charles County is the best place in Missouri to raise a kid. The worst place? Once again, it's St. Louis.

Those rankings come from the latest Kids Count report from Citizens for Missouri's Children.

Across the state, the recession and other factors have led to more poverty, less access to health care and fewer educational opportunities for children, the report says.

"We can really see that, going into the end of this legislative session, the needs for children are greater than ever," says Emily Schwartze, the group's director of programs and policy.

With the Missouri legislative session entering its final week, members and affiliates of Schwartze's group face lots of nail-biting tension as they await the fate of bills, such as HB360, which would expand Medicaid health insurance to an additional 35,000 parents.

Gov. Jay Nixon argues that this bill would help children by helping their moms. Health insurance would come at no additional cost to taxpayers, says Nixon, because Missouri hospitals would put up the money for the state to buy the Medicaid coverage. But most GOP lawmakers have called the governor's approach shortsighted, saying it doesn't address the possibility that Missouri might lack the money to cover this expense in the years ahead.

The Kids Count report presents a mixed picture on children's health. During a five-year period, between 2003 and 2007, it says the number of children enrolled in Missouri's public health insurance program dropped by more than 50,000. The drop, it says, means that nearly 150,000 Missouri kids now lack health coverage.

"Many of the declines that we are seeing, such as (an increase in the number of) low birth weight infants, can be traced to the lack of access to adequate health care," according to Scott Gee, executive director of Citizens for Missouri's Children.

The governor has sought to cover some of these children by expanding Medicaid, but he has been thwarted each time by Republicans lawmakers.

The report also said the number of children enrolled in free or reduced lunches has risen by 2.5 percent, an indication of rising poverty among families. It also reported that births among teen girls between the ages of 15 and 19 rose by 2.6 percent.

Although St. Louis ranks at the bottom of the group's 10 indicators, the report said the city's numbers were improving in every area -- except in the high school dropout rate. The city's rate is more than 11 percent, compared to a state rate of 3.7 percent, the study said. Other indicators included the number of violent deaths, out-of-home placements, child abuse and neglect, and infant mortality. Among most of those indicators, children in St. Louis fared slightly better in 2007 than they did in 2003, the study found.

Many of the other political jurisdictions ranking low on the child well-being scale were in the Bootheel. There, Cape Girardeau County had the best ranking, 48th. Scott County ranked 76th, Butler County ranked 80th, Mississippi County ranked 88th, Stoddard County ranked 93rd, New Madrid County ranked 105th, Pemiscot ranked 113th and Dunklin County ranked 114th, just above St. Louis.

In St. Charles, meanwhile, children continue to rank at the top of most indicators. But even St. Charles had a few blemishes. The number of children receiving free or reduced lunches there rose to 8,100 in 2007 from 5,800 in 2003. The number of infants with low birth weight in the county rose by 7.1 percent to 1,600 in 2007, and infant mortality was up 6.5 percent.

St. Louis County ranked 18 statewide on the Kids Count list in spite of losing ground in all categories, except child abuse and out-of-home placements.

St. Charles was only one of two counties in Eastern Missouri to rank in the top 10 on all child well-being indicators. The other was Osage County in the Columbia area. The remaining eight high-scoring counties were all in the upper northwestern portion of Missouri, mostly north of Kansas City.

A 24-hour snapshot of children in Missouri, says the report, would show that 18 are born with low birth weights each day, 41 are born to moms lacking high school diplomas, two die before their first birthday, 127 are victims of child abuse and neglect, 29 drop out of school, and 212,369 live in poverty.

State lawmakers have one more week to show how much these kids matter.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.