Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tennessee is 46th in caring for kids

State worsens in poverty but improves dropout rates By Clay Carey • THE TENNESSEAN • July 29, 2009 Tennessee isn't doing a very good job of making life better for its kids, according to a new study on children's issues. The state ranks 46th nationally in a 2009 Kids Count Data Book, an analysis of issues that can affect children's well-being. Since 2000, the state has improved on five of the 10 measures outlined in the report. On the other five, statistics suggest the state has worsened. Tennessee ranks in the bottom 10 in seven of the categories in the annual report, published by The Annie E. Casey Foundation. "We would certainly prefer to be ranked better than 46th," said Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. The commission helped collect data for the data book. Though the report is grim, it does contain some bright spots for Tennessee. High school dropout rates — which have been targeted by local school districts thanks in part to federal No Child Left Behind standards — fell by 36 percent between 2000 and 2007. The state also saw above-average progress in reducing child death rates. Shari Barkin, division chief of general pediatrics at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, said the numbers reflect a payoff for efforts to keep children safe through new seat belt laws and bicycle helmet requirements. "It's changing the laws that change people's behavior," Barkin said. "These are big differences." Still, Barkin said, as a state "we've got a lot of work to do. This is not a sprint. It's a marathon." Many of the issues studied in the Kids Count Data Book can be traced back to poverty. The percentage of Tennessee children living in poverty in 2007 was 23 percent, up from 20 percent in 2000, it reported. Tennessee and other Southern states have been plagued by a history of poverty, unemployment and low-paying jobs that worsen dropout rates, teen birth rates and other metrics the study considers, O'Neal said. "We are very challenged in Tennessee. We have limited resources" to pay for improvements in education and economic development, she said. "We have to invest in our future. … When we do the right thing for our children, it is the right thing for our state as a whole." Death rate drops Tennessee's best ratings on the report came in the area of high school dropout rates, where the state ranked 23rd in the country, and the percentage of teens who are either in school or working, where Tennessee came in 31st. The death rate for Tennessee children between the ages of 1 and 14 dropped 21 percent from 2000 to 2006. A 2004 revamp of child seat belt laws that included a new booster seat requirement for auto passengers younger than 8 helped that statistic, O'Neal said. She hopes new laws like the ban on texting while driving, passed by the state legislature this year, will have a similar effect on teen death rates, which rose slightly between 2000 and 2006. "Those (types of laws) only make a difference if people are complying with them," she said. Nationally, the data show some improvement in child quality-of-life issues between 2000 and 2007, but "it's still not on par with what we saw in the late 1990s," said Laura Beavers, who coordinated the national Kids Count project. Health issues like infant mortality rates and teen birth rates generally improved. But economic conditions were already starting to worsen when the data were taken, and current financial conditions are probably much worse than the statistics show, Beavers said. "This data really doesn't include the height of the economic downturn," she said. "We know this (data) is a big understatement of what is going on with kids today."

No comments: