Counting Kids

Posted Aug. 05, 2009, at 6:23 p.m.

Maine’s ranking in an annual child wellness report increased after years of decline, but the picture is not entirely positive.

The state made significant strides in reducing child deaths and lowering the teen birth rate, but infant mortality and the percentage of teens neither in school nor working increased significantly.

The 20th annual Kids Count data book, released last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranked Maine 12th among the states for its emphasis on child welfare. This is an increase from last year’s 16th place, but a significant drop from Maine’s ranking of fifth best in 2000.

The report provides lawmakers and policymakers with important information that should inform decisions on where to invest limited state resources to best help the state’s youngest residents.

If there is one consistent theme in the report, it is that child poverty, which worsened in Maine at a much faster rate than the national average, must be addressed to diminish other negative outcomes, such as an increase in infant mortality rate and percentage of low-birth-weight babies.

Between 2000 and 2007, the proportion of children in Maine living in poverty increased 25 percent. The national child poverty rate rose 6 percent during the same time period. In Washington County, more than a quarter of children are living in poverty.

The report uses data collected before the current recession began, so the picture is likely to be worse in the next version.

Although not part of the national assessment, the report highlighted an area where attention to a problem made a difference.

In an essay accompanying the report, Maine was praised for remaking its child welfare system after the death of Logan Marr, a 5-year-old foster child. Since 2001, the state’s foster care population has dropped by more than a third and more children are placed with relatives.

Some of the most interesting numbers for Maine aren’t part of the official Kids Count analysis. For example, according to the report, there were 279,467 Maine residents under the age of 18 in 2007. This is 21 percent of the state’s population, tying Maine with West Virginia and Vermont for the smallest percentage of population under 18. Nationally, 25 percent of the population is under 18.

A lack of young people is a major concern for the future economic vitality of Maine. However, delving deeper into the Kids Count data, the decade-long decline in the number of kids in Maine may be ending. According to previous Kids Count reports, the number of children under age 5 was 71,350 in 2001 and 67,660 in 2005. In 2006, it had risen to 70,862.

These are not large increases — and they significantly lag behind the percentage of children in the population nationally — but they may offer a bright spot in otherwise worrisome population trends.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/08/05/opinion/counting-kids/ printed on July 23, 2014