Our Opinion: Making sure our kids count


The latest Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation is out. After climbing for each of the last three years, Vermont held steady this year at number two.

The report, now in its 25th year, uses 16 indicators from four groups that measure a child's well-being: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. In this year's report, Massachusetts led the country, followed by Vermont, Iowa, New Hampshire and Minnesota, while Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico and Mississippi had the lowest rankings.

Overall the report shows how individual states and its residents are facing some of the same poverty and economic challenges showing up in national trends and statistics.

Vermont ranked second in 2013, third in 2012 and fourth in 2011. In this year's report the state ranked third in education, family and community. The areas where Vermont declined were the percentage of children living in households with a high housing cost, the number of children living in single-parent families, and the number of children living in high poverty areas. The report found that 15 percent of the state's children, about 19,000, live in poverty.

All of these statistics mirror a national trend as the country continues to claw its way out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Despite Vermont's higher number of children living in poverty, the state still faired better than most and saw its overall economic well-being rank improve from ninth in 2013 to eighth in the country this year.

The only category that dropped from the 2013 report was Vermont's health ranking, which fell to sixth from fourth. Even so, three of the four measures in the health category showed improvement: children without health insurance, child and teen deaths, and percentage of teens who abuse alcohol or drugs. The fourth category, low-birth-weight babies, was unchanged.

The decline in Vermont's health ranking should not be cause for alarm, however. It could simply be the result of changes in other states rather than deterioration in Vermont, said Sarah Teel, the research associate for Voices for Vermont's Children, which distributes the national Kids Count data book in Vermont. Still, we cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to the well-being of our children.

"We have to be careful about assuming that our relatively high rank means we don't need to improve," Teel told the AP. "Our progress is an opportunity to look at where policies have made a positive difference and expand and protect those approaches."

Our neighbors to the east may want to heed those words. The Granite State was knocked off its top perch, a position it held for more than 10 years, and dropped down to fourth place. The decline is blamed in part on its rapidly rising child poverty rate, which grew from 9 percent to 16 percent over a seven-year period, the AP reports.

Again, this points to a recession-fed national trend in which the percentage of children living in poverty grew from 19 percent to 23 percent. New Hampshire also scored worse in several other related categories, including children whose parents lack secure employment and children living in households with burdensome housing costs.

Fortunately, some communities are taking a pro-active, broad-based approach to these problems so that children aren't made to suffer because of a sour economy.

In Manchester, for example, the city health department has been tackling the problem with neighborhood-based health improvement initiatives. The new effort brings together community leaders and administrators across multiple agencies, such as education and law enforcement, who solicited citizen feedback to develop seven priority recommendations in six areas, including educational achievement, healthy behaviors and social connectedness, the AP reports.

For example, one recommendation is to create opportunities for youth and families to become leaders in improving their neighborhood safety and quality of life, so officials will be offering a school-based training course called "Leader in Me." To tackle the problem of poor children missing school, the city hopes to use a more individual, case

management approach to make sure parents value education and get the help they need to ensure they send their kids to school.

"No one agency is going to be able to do this alone," Deputy Health Director Anna Thomas told the AP. "We need lots of people to take this on and see themselves in this campaign. Everything we're trying to instill has to be reinforced by other facets of the community."

In other words, the whole village has to be involved in the education and well-being of all our children.


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