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Annual survey shows some improvement in Missouri children's well-being

Wednesday, August 1, 2012 | 8:33 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA – Consistent with national trends, a recent study shows that Missouri's children experienced a significant decline in economic well-being from 2005 to 2010. The study, however, shows some improvement in the areas of children's health and education.

The 2012 Kids Count Data Book, compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ranked Missouri as the 26th-best state for children. That's eight spots higher than last year.

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"Missouri still ranks in the middle of the pack," said Laura Speer, associate director of policy reform and data at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Speer said information from last year's data book could not be accurately compared to this year's because different measurements were used to compile the rankings.

This year's rankings, which the foundation believes are more comprehensive, were compiled based on four "domains," each containing four "indicators." The four domains were economic well-being, education, health and family, and community. The indicators are statistics closely related to those categories. The statistics in the study compared data from 2005 and 2010 to assess the ranking, along with improvements and setbacks in each state.

Growing poverty affects Missouri children

According to the new data book, Missouri children experienced setbacks in their economic well-being between 2005 and 2010. All four economic indicators became substantially worse, with an 11 percent increase in the number of children living in the poverty, and a 15 percent jump in the number of children whose parents lack secure employment. The number of children in poverty rose from 19 percent to 22 percent.

Despite those numbers, Missouri still ranked 21st among the states for children's economic well-being.

"It is not surprising — the economic well-being of children and families has plummeted because of the recession," Speer said. "The economy has an overall impact on children's well-being. Many families are still coping with hardship as the unemployment rate is still high, which directly influences the child poverty rate."

Schools have had programs in place to address rising poverty rates for years. One such effort is the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and lower-price meals to children.

The number of students who qualify for the National School Lunch Program has risen steadily over the past four years, Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Chris Belcher said. Forty percent of Columbia students were enrolled in the program in 2011, up from 32 percent in 2008.

"But their test scores show a steady increase since 2008," Belcher said. "The average score is increasing from 44.6 to 63.7, which is definitely a positive improvement."

Columbia schools also work with The Food Bank of Central and Northeast Missouri to arrange Buddy Packs, a program that provides backpacks full of food to students from low-income families on weekends and during holidays.

"Even though the number of children in poverty is increasing, we cannot provide enough free food for children in need in our Buddy Pack program," Rachel Ellersieck, a spokeswoman for the food bank, said. "The cost of food goes up dramatically. It is too expensive to provide more food for the need out there."

Data also show an 80 percent increase in the number of children living in high-poverty areas over the past four years. The report defined high-poverty communities as those areas where 30 percent of residents or more live with incomes below the federal poverty level. The official poverty line in 2010 was $22,113 for a family of four.

Growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to a child’s healthy development, Charron Townsend, president of the Partnership for Children, said. 

Townsend, whose organization helped collect data for the study, said living in high-poverty communities greatly influences children's lives, as they tend to lack quality education systems, medical care and safe outdoor spaces.

"Children are the future of our state," Townsend said. "We must target our limited resources to help ensure all children have the necessary support that they need to thrive."

Missouri's areas of improvement

All four education indicators showed improvement over the five-year period. One  important change is an 11 percent drop in the number of high school students not graduating on time. The number of eighth-graders who are not proficient in math, children not attending preschool and fourth-graders not proficient in reading also fell slightly.

"The focus has not changed," Speer said. "Even though the budget for education is tight, the focus is still on improving education. We need to make smart investments to improve the future for children."

Townsend said the significant decrease in high school students failing to graduate on time can be attributed to statewide efforts to curb dropout rates.

Missouri also saw significant improvements in children's overall health. The number of low-birth weight babies remained the same, but the number of child and teen deaths per 10,000 fell 10 percent, and the number of teens who abuse alcohol and drugs decreased 22 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of children without health insurance has decreased by 14 percent since 2008.

"Having access to health insurance is crucial to children," Speer said. "We have seen some positive changes in providing child care."

The foundation drew its conclusions using 2010 U.S. Census data, which is the latest data available. The Partnership for Children will release data specific to each Missouri county next week.


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