Despite financial hardships, Maine teens smoking and drinking less, committing fewer crimes

Suzanne McCormick, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Portland, pictured here in a 2013 file photo, helped release the 19th annual Maine KIDS COUNT report Thursday alongside the nonprofit Maine Children's Alliance.
Suzanne McCormick, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Portland, pictured here in a 2013 file photo, helped release the 19th annual Maine KIDS COUNT report Thursday alongside the nonprofit Maine Children's Alliance. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 21, 2013, at 1:58 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine teenagers smoke and drink less than four years ago, are more likely to graduate high school and have access to quality health care than the national average, and are less likely to have been arrested or physically abused than their peers in other states, according to a report released Thursday.

But other trends in the nonprofit Maine Children’s Alliance’s 19th annual KIDS COUNT study showed cause for concern. The report reinforced statistics indicating more Maine children are living in poverty than in past years.

According to the study, 19.3 percent of Mainers younger than 18 were living in poverty in 2011 — the most recent year official data is available for the report. That represents an increase from 18.2 percent the previous year.

In the hardest hit Washington County, nearly one out of every three minors — 31.2 percent — is living below the poverty line.

With median family incomes remaining essentially flat, at $53,400 in 2012 compared to $53,600 the prior year, and with state and federal cuts to welfare programs, children growing up today are placed at a financial disadvantage, the report’s authors state.

“Investing in young children is an investment in the future prosperity of Maine,” Ned McCann, executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance, said in a Thursday statement. “At the Maine Children’s Alliance, we have been concerned that during the time that more of Maine’s children are getting poorer, fewer are receiving support to help them through their financial hardships.”

Comparing data from Maine’s 16 counties, the report shows that children in Washington County are worse off financially than any other place in the state. The fewest children living in poverty can be found in the southernmost York and Cumberland counties, at 13.6 percent and 15.1 percent, respectively.

Knox, Waldo, Franklin, Androscoggin and Franklin counties show child poverty levels between 20 percent and 25 percent, while Aroostook, Somerset, Piscataquis and the aforementioned Washington counties all top 26 percent.

Despite the economic hardships, however, young people in Maine seem to be showing resilience across a range of other metrics included in the study.

More fourth graders are reading proficiently, according to the latest round of standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores, than the national average — 37 percent compared to the U.S. mean of 34 percent.

Youths on either side of that fourth grade test group age-wise are seeing positive trends as well. Nearly 33 percent of Maine’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs in 2012-2013, a significant jump from 2007-2008’s figure of 18 percent. And on the other end of the age spectrum, Maine’s high school graduation rate has maintained its already high trajectory, at 84.8 percent in 2012.

The previous year, the state boasted a high school graduation rate of 83.1 percent.

“We know that reading proficiency at the end of third grade is associated with future academic success and that high school graduation is the single most powerful predictor of whether a young person coming from generations of poverty will break the cycle,“ said Suzanne McCormick, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Portland, in a statement Thursday. “The ability of students to think, learn and communicate affects their likelihood of becoming productive adults and active citizens.”

Thursday’s report takes a somewhat more optimistic tone than one released nearly three weeks ago by the Educate Maine coalition, led by a panel of state business leaders and educators. While the Educate Maine document acknowledged the same test scores, pre-kindergarten enrollment and high school graduation rates, it noted that they’re below New England averages even if high in a nationwide comparison — and suggested Maine must keep up with regional rates to stay more competitive in business attraction efforts.

The Maine Children’s Alliance report carried a broader scope than its Educate Maine counterpart, however, tracking more numbers outside the purview of the state’s education system.

For instance, the study released Thursday found that Maine youths are more likely than the national average to have access to health care, with 63.4 percent receiving “primary health care that is accessible, continuous, comprehensive, family-centered and delivered by a trusted provider.” The national average is 54.4 percent.

Additionally, the study indicated that only 5 percent of Maine children lack health insurance, a rate about half the countrywide average.

Perhaps most encouraging of the numbers released Thursday showed Maine teenagers making more healthy lifestyle choices.

Comparing 2011 numbers to those from 2009, fewer teens in the state reported drinking, smoking, committing crimes or being victims of physical abuse compared to two years earlier. Just more than 15 percent of Maine high school students said they smoked in 2011, a drop from more than 18 percent over 24 months, and less than 29 percent reported drinking in the most recent survey, a decline from 2009’s figure of more than 32 percent.

“The number of teens reporting ever being hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend during the last 12 months decreased, from 15.4 percent in 2009 to 11.4 percent two years later,” reads a report summary distributed Thursday, in part. “Arrests of children also declined from a rate of 49.6 arrests per 1,000 children ages 10-17 in 2010 to a rate of 41.7 arrests in 2011.”

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