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Report finds a mixed bag for children’s well-being in North Carolina

Staff report

SALISBURY — North Carolina has made some slow gains over the years but continues to fall to the back of the pack nationally in children’s health and education.

That’s according to the 2017 Kids Count Data Book.

The report, a yearly look at how children fare in health, finances and education on a national scale, was released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. It says that children showed gains in health and economic markers but had setbacks in education and family and community markers. The report says American families have not fully recovered from the recession.

North Carolina ranked 33rd in the country for overall child well-being — up one spot from last year’s estimate but still falling behind most states.

However, the state has made considerable gains in education, moving up from 28 in 2016 to 22 in 2017.

But North Carolina falters in economic well-being (ranked 37th) and in family and community (36th), which includes markers such as the number of children living in single-parent households, whether children are living in high-poverty areas and whether the head of the household has earned a high school diploma.

Data for specific counties is provided by N.C. Child, a child advocacy organization, and has not been updated since 2013.

In 2015, 37 percent of children in North Carolina lived in a single-parent household, more than the national average of 35 percent. The number of children living in high-poverty areas, where the poverty level is 30 percent or higher, increased to 14 percent between 2011 and 2015, up from 13 percent in 2008-12.

And while the national unemployment rate, at 4.5 percent, is at its lowest in a decade, 21 percent of children are living in poverty — three percentage points higher than at the start of the recession. In North Carolina, that number is higher, at 23 percent.

“While all our indicators are important, the child poverty rate demands immediate action given the role that economic hardship plays in nearly every other indicator,” the report reads. “…By not prioritizing poverty reduction and by failing to adequately ameliorate its effects when children are young and intervention has the biggest payoff, we waste an unconscionable amount of individual human potential. And the collective toll on our country is enormous.”

By 2013, 27.8 percent of Rowan County children were living in poverty — higher than the state average and a few ticks higher than the 27.2 percent reported in 2012. It’s also a higher percentage than nearly all of Rowan’s neighbors. The Salisbury Post used Cabarrus, Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Iredell, Mecklenburg and Stanly as neighboring counties for comparison. The only counties with a higher rate of children in poverty were Forsyth, at 30.4 percent, and Davidson, at 28.3 percent.

But Rowan County outstrips its neighbors when it comes to free and reduced school lunches. Nearly 62 percent of Rowan County children receive free or reduced lunches, and 12 of Rowan County’s 35 public schools are community eligibility schools that provide free breakfast and lunch to all students.

In education, 62 percent of North Carolina fourth-graders were not reading on grade level in 2015. The national average is 65 percent. And 67 percent of eighth-graders were not proficient in math, the report said.

But it’s not all bad news. A record number of children have health insurance — 95 percent of children nationally. In North Carolina, the rate is also 95 percent, an increase from 92 percent in 2010.

Additionally, the number of teenage mothers in North Carolina has dropped dramatically — from 34 percent in 2010 to 22 percent in 2015. More high school students are graduating on time than in previous years, fewer teens are using drugs and alcohol, and the U.S. graduation rate is at an all-time high, according to the report.

“The economic circumstances in which children grow and learn have a lifelong impact on their health, education and future economic success,” said Laila A. Bell, director of research and data at N.C. Child. “North Carolina policymakers can and should do more to improve economic well-being for children and families. Increasing public investments in early childhood education, health care, and public schools will create opportunity for children, families and communities across the state.”

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