Md. children said lagging in the good life State again rated below U.S. average; poverty pockets noted; 'It's a little discouraging'; Study of well-being includes teen arrests, underweight babies


For all of Maryland's prosperity, life isn't getting better for many of its children, according to an annual survey that once again puts the state in the bottom half of the nation.

Babies are born underweight at a higher rate than in most states. Teen-agers are more likely to be arrested for violent crimes. The percentage of children living in poverty, though lower than the national average, is worse than a decade ago.

The study, being published today by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, measures child health, safety and well-being in the 50 states and District of Columbia. Maryland ranked 32nd in the nation, slipping from 30th in last year's report.

Although Maryland consistently has one of the highest per-capita income levels in the country, the statistical portrait of its 1.28 million children reveals many of the persistent problems associated with poverty.

The Casey Foundation, a national charity devoted to improving the lives of disadvantaged children, attributes that to deepening, concentrated poverty in Baltimore and some rural sections of the state.

"It's a little discouraging," said Douglas W. Nelson, the foundation president. "We've fallen, and, given the robust economy, you have to look at neighborhoods of concentrated poverty that don't have a lot of access to jobs and opportunities."

Nationally, the foundation's ninth annual "Kids Count Data Book" notes with alarm the shortage of affordable and accessible day care, especially for the 10 million children whose parents work at low-wage jobs that often require night and weekend shifts.

In the next two years, about 20 percent of mothers of preschoolers in the United States will have jobs outside the home, including millions of former welfare recipients.

The report calls for increased government funding, expanded tax credits and greater investment in programs run by local churches and community groups. It also urges states to enforce child care standards and develop more nontraditional services.

"The number of low-income women who work nights and weekends is surprisingly high and growing," Nelson said. "It means we have to create and support day care that is much more flexible and fits the realities of working life."

Minnesota was credited with two tax laws that help the working poor keep up with day care costs -- a dependent child credit and a state refund. Maryland is about to emulate the second program. The governor and legislature recently approved sending tax refunds to low-wage families, even if they don't owe income taxes.

Maryland, which is considered one of the best states for child care, provides extensive training for workers and has a referral system to help parents locate services. Still, in a recent survey, families in the city, Allegany, Somerset and Dorchester counties listed day care as their biggest expense, over housing and groceries.

Those areas also have high rates of unemployment, teen pregnancy and infant mortality, contributing to Maryland's continued weak standing in state rankings.

Over the decade 1985-1995, while child poverty levels remained flat nationally, Maryland's worsened measurably, the report found. Nonetheless, its 16 percent child poverty rate was 20th in the country, compared with the national average of 21 percent.

The report's state-by-state comparisons were based on 1995 figures. Maryland had pulled out of the recession of the early 1990s by then, but was not enjoying as robust an economy as today.

Among the 10 indicators used to determine children's welfare, Maryland fared worst in juvenile violent crime, with 732 arrests per 100,000 youths ages 10 to 17, compared with the national average of 507. That put the state in 46th place for a second year.

Driven largely by violence in Baltimore, the state had the highest rate of teen-agers who died in homicides, except for Washington, D.C. With deaths and suicides included in the category, Maryland ranked 38th in the nation.

It ranked 43rd in the percentage of low birth-weight babies (8.5 percent compared with the national average of 7.3), and, despite modest gains, 41st in its infant mortality rate (8.9 deaths per 1,000 births, compared with the national average of 7.6).

Maryland showed improvement in three categories between 1985 and 1995: infant mortality, children's death rates and the percentage of teen dropouts who do not work. It did best in holding down the percentage of teens who neither attend school nor work, ranking 18th among the states. The state also had a lower percentage of single-parent households than the national average, ranking 20th in the nation.

The report found conditions for children were best in New Hampshire and Vermont and worst in Louisiana and the District of Columbia.

"I'm frustrated by it, and I'm sad about it, but I'm not surprised," said Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor, an Allegany Democrat, who noted that the economic boom has not benefited many in Western Maryland. "Our prosperity has not yet been appropriately disbursed to all."

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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