published Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Child health improves, but poverty rises in Tennessee, Georgia

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2012 KIDS COUNT Data Book
2012 KIDS COUNT Data Book

The good news -- health and education are getting better for kids.

The bad news -- poverty is getting worse.

An evaluation of child well-being shows both Tennessee and Georgia improved their national rankings despite the difficult economy. Tennessee moved from 39th to 36th and Georgia went from 42nd to 37th, according to Kids Count, an annual report released Wednesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Alabama ranked 45th, the best ranking the state has seen since the report was first released in 1990.

"A child's chance of thriving depends not just on individual, familial and community characteristics, but also on the state in which she is born and raised," the report noted.

Tennessee touted its numbers as some of the best in the Southern region, with rankings higher than Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. The state improved in nine factors and got worse in seven.

States with the best rankings were New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey and Minnesota.

"This is a point to celebrate but it's also a point to motivate," said Gaye Smith, executive director for the Georgia Family Connection Partnership. "We still have challenges, but we've also made some investments that makes me hopeful. You really can't attribute moving the needle to one thing, but if enough people get around the table and problem solve then that combined affect moves the needle."

The report included 16 indicators of economic well-being, education, health and family and community, changed from the 10 indicators used in previous years. Despite the changes, there is a high statistical correlation of the rankings over time, the report noted.

The specific categories allow states to see exactly where they need to improve, officials said.

Since the latest numbers include data gathered since the recession began and might show more negative trends because of budget cuts and economic difficulties, some state officials had feared the latest results. But the new numbers brought a sense of relief.

The greatest improvements came in health, with improved birthweights, more insured children, fewer deaths and fewer teens who abuse alcohol or drugs.

Public policy, such as laws requiring seatbelts, banning texting while driving and changing child safety seats, have driven some of the numbers, officials said. Both Tennessee and Georgia also have vigorous programs to combat infant mortality and low birthweights.

"Good public policies have made a difference," said Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.

Both states also saw improvements in high school graduation rates and heads of households that have a high school diploma.

Despite the improvements, the report had bad news on poverty and other economic factors. More than one-quarter of children in all three states live in poverty. More teens who are not in school are not working, the report said.

"The effects of poverty really are very hard to overcome," O'Neal said.

Both states said they are taking a two-generational approach to poverty by providing training and support to parents while also educating children.

"The benefits will be stronger if we invest in both," O'Neal said.

Contact staff writer Mariann Martin at mmartin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6324.

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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