Utah's slipping when it comes to well-being of children, report shows

Published: Sunday, June 23 2013 10:05 p.m. MDT

Kaylie Nash and mother Nikita Casner pick out a drink as Subway serves a free lunch to nearly 1,100 needy people at Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City Wednesday, June 5, 2013. Local Subway restaurants and the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake teamed to raise awareness of the problems facing Salt Lake's homeless and low-income families.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When national studies look at Utah's economic growth, the news is good. But the 2013 KIDS Count report on child well-being finds the Beehive State slipped from No. 11 to No. 14 in 2013.

More kids live in poverty, more parents lack secure employment and more teens can't find jobs than last year. The percentage of families that struggle with a high housing cost burden increased. So did the percentage of fourth-graders who are not proficient at reading.

The national report, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, examines 16 measures of childhood well-being across four broad categories, relying primarily on 2011 data. Utah ranked No. 11 overall in economic well-being, No. 30 in education and No. 14 in health. Its best showing was in the category of family and community at No. 2, although it slipped on two of the four measures there. A higher percentage of kids live in single-parent families (21 percent), while 3 percent live in high-poverty areas. A decade ago that was 2 percent.

Voices for Utah Children, a nonprofit group that promotes policies and programs that create healthy environments for children and their development, held a media briefing Friday on the report against the backdrop of a photo showing a girl standing by a staircase depicting Utah's downward trajectory. "How low will we go before we make children a policy priority in Utah?" the caption read.

Still, noted Terry Haven, deputy director of Voices for Utah Children, "We're 14th, not 50th. We've always done fairly well by our kids. But we need to make children a public policy priority. Children are 33 percent of our population, but they're 100 percent of our future."

Big picture

The top five states for children were New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey. New Mexico came in dead last. Others at the bottom were Louisiana, Arizona, Nevada and Mississippi.

Nearly 1 in 4, or 16.4 million children live in poverty in America, the report said. In Utah, the number is 138,000 or 16 percent of children. The number of children whose parents lack full-time jobs was nearly 20 percent higher than it was five years ago. The report also found that the number of children in high-poverty neighborhoods climbed in 40 states.

The report also notes a "considerable gap" between the best state and worst state on most measures. One of the most dramatic is in math proficiency: In Massachusetts, 49 percent are not proficient in eighth-grade, but in Mississippi, 81 percent lack proficiency. In Utah, 65 percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in math. Still, that's an improvement. In 2005, that number was 70 percent.

"Children are our nation's most precious resource, as well as our future leaders, employees, citizens and parents," said Patrick McCarthy, foundation president and CEO, in a written statement with the report. "The early years of their lives are a critical juncture in their development. As our economic recovery continues, we cannot lose sight of doing whatever it takes to help kids, particularly kids in low-income families, reach their full potential — and that includes laying a solid foundation from the moment they are born."

Changing the path

Besides outlining the six areas where Utah improved and eight where it lost ground, the report talks about how to better the lives of the children. Experts on child welfare say the challenge for Utah is sometimes less one of decline than a failure to make some improvements that other states are tackling head-on.

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