Making every kid count

Parents in the U.S. are losing economic ground and their kids are suffering for it, according to the 2007 Kids Count Data Book compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Of the 10 indicators of child well-being, six showed improvement (two only slightly) since 2000 and four slipped.

“Nationally, no area was neutral,” says Laura Beavers, research associate with the foundation.

Illinois ranked 26th among the states, a fall from 24th last year. Its gains and losses generally followed national trends.

Julia Parente, director of communications with Voices for Illinois Children, attributes this state’s drop to such issues as the increasing number of low-birth weight babies and fragile family situations: the number of families living in poverty and young teens becoming parents.

Sixteen percent of Illinois children are living in poverty, with 8 percent living in extreme poverty and 36 percent living in low-income families, according to the report.

“Child poverty is a very troubling indicator,” Parente says."It shows that there are many, many families in our state who are struggling to make ends meet.”

Illinois politicians and residents need to ask if there is more that can be done to strengthen these fragile families, she says."It’s about reaching out to your neighbors and helping out in your community,” Parente says."We need to improve conditions for all children.”

Several of the well-being indicators broke down along racial/ethnic lines—better on average for Asians and Caucasians and worse on nearly all indicators for African American and Native American families. Among Latinos surveyed, results were mixed—better for birth and death rates, but worse on education and economic security.

Low-weight births continue to rise in every state, with the national rate in 2004 the highest since 1969. For African-American babies, the rate was about twice as high as any other racial or ethnic group surveyed. In African American and Native American communities, one out of every two children lives in a family where no parent has full-time, year-round employment.

Family factor

In addition to the Data Book, the foundation tackles foster care, challenging state and national governments to ensure that any child who comes through the child welfare system either reconnects with their birth family or a relative, or if that is impossible, finds an adoptive or legal guardian family relationship.

While the public recognizes that safety is the primary focus of child welfare systems, they need to realize that being safe is not enough, says Douglas W. Nelson, president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Parente suggests individuals volunteer with the Don’t Write Me Off/Foster Kids Are Our Kids initiative to mentor, tutor or just build a permanent relationship with a foster child. In 2004, 1,020 children aged out of the Illinois child welfare system without a permanent family solution. At the national level, 22,718 were emancipated to"independent living” without a family connection.

“We need to understand the critical importance of family membership, of lasting family connections for all children, including those in foster care and regardless of their age,” Nelson says.

Nelson notes it is also critically important to keep siblings together and that this should be expected of every child welfare system in the U.S."It’s not always easy,” he says.

What the 10 key indicators say about Illinois over time14th Child death rate: Better16th Percent of teens who are high school dropouts: Better19th Percent of teens not attending school or work: Better20th Percent of children living in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment: Worse20th Teen death rate: Better21st Percent of children in single-parent families: Better22nd Percent of children living in poverty: Worse28th Teen birth rate: Better31st Infant mortality rate: Better34th Percent of low-birth weight babies: Worse
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