Utah looks good on paper: No. 6 in the latest Kids Count national ranking for the second year in a row.
But child advocates warn that a lot of misery is hidden in the numbers of a state that could do better. And they point out that nationally more children are suffering, so ranking well is not the kudos it might appear.The Kids Count Data Book is released annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and profiles how children are treated on a state-by-state basis, using 10 indicators: birth weight, infant mortality, child death rate, teen violent death rate, teen parenthood, juvenile arrests for violent crime, high school dropouts, teens not working or going to school, poverty rates and families headed by a single parent.
While Utah has the lowest percentage of children in single-parent families, that was worse in 1993 (on which the data book is based) than in 1985.
Utah's improving infant mortality rate is good news. While 9.6 per 1,000 infants died the first year in 1985, that number has been reduced to 6 in 1993, making Utah the second-best state in the nation.
Other significant improvements were a decrease in the number of high-school dropouts (7 percent in 1993 compared with 10 percent in 1985) and a decrease in teens who aren't working or going to school (down to 6 percent from 9 percent).
One in eight Utah children lives in poverty. Nationally, more than one in five lives in poverty. But before Utahns celebrate, said economist Garth Mangum, they should remember Utah is a low-wage state with a high birthrate "and the trend in child poverty in Utah has been upward and more rapid than nationally."
Mangum said that Utahns escape higher poverty in part by having both parents work, a solution not available for single-parent households.
The data book focuses on the plight of "working poor" families, where at least one parent works and the family still can't get out of poverty. It also confirms links between poverty and health, child care and education problems.
Utah is "good about buying slots" of subsidized child care for poor families, said Cheryl Wright, University of Utah Family and Consumer Studies. It's not good about putting money into improving the quality of care, and the result is often substandard care.
"The long-term consequences are dire and great," Wright said. "The greatest consequence is emotional."
And because child-care providers are so poorly paid - "comparable to a gas station attendant - it's an industry with an unstable work force."
Utah looks particularly grim in terms of the number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes. The No. 24 ranking follows an increase from 263 arrests per 100,000 youths in 1985 to 375 in 1993.
"Many juveniles are left unattended after school," said Willard Malmstrom, former director of the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. "We see incidences of juvenile crime related to school hours: 3 to 6 p.m. is one of the peaks. We have legitimate concern about what is happening to kids unattended."
Malmstrom emphasized that violent youths are a very small percentage of their age group, but Utah is experiencing an increase.
Utah's teen violent death rate has also increased slightly. Dr. Robert Bolte, Primary Children's Medical Center emergency room, said auto accidents are to blame for most of those deaths. But doctors are seeing more and more children for gunshot wounds.
"To put it in perspective," Bolte said, "every year about 5,800 children in the U.S. are killed by firearms. If the rate continues, it will be basically Vietnam-scale death rates in a decade."
And by the year 2003, at the current increase rate, firearms will be the leading cause of violent death for children. Utah's rate has doubled since 1991, he said.
Utah trends and national rankings
Utah ranks sixth overall in the annual Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Book:
Indicator: 1985 1993 Rank
Percent low birth-weight babies 5.7 5.9 12
Infant mortality (per 1,000) 9.6 6.0 2
Child deaths (1-14) (per 100,000) 35 33 38
Teen violent deaths (per 100,000) 65 67 24
Births to teens (per 1,000 females) 27 26 12
Juvenile violent crime arrests
(per 100,000) 263 375 24
Percent high school dropouts 10 7 15
Percent teens not in school or working 9 6 4
Percent children in poverty 14 12 3
Single-parent families 15 16 1