How is it that Maryland, the nation's third-wealthiest state, ranks only fair to middling in how well its children are faring, according to a national report released this week?
The latest Kids Count report from the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation says Maryland is 23rd among all states on 10 indicators of child well-being. That's a drop of four places since last year, when the state ranked 19th - and it should be absolutely unacceptable for a state with such a reserve of financial and human resources. But the report reconfirms that beneath the veneer of relative affluence, there are pockets of deep disadvantage in the state - most notably in Baltimore, which ranks as the country's sixth-poorest area - that require more direct and concentrated attention.
Overall, Maryland did better on half of the indicators, most notably a 36 percent improvement in the high school dropout rate and a 15 percent improvement in the child poverty rate from 2000 to 2004, and a 20 percent improvement in the teen birthrate from 2000 to 2003. There were troubling increases, however, in the infant mortality rate and the percentage of babies born weighing 5.5 pounds or less. The infant death rate rose by 8 percent and the rate of low-birthweight babies jumped by 6 percent from 2000 to 2003 (the latest data available).
While some of the increase in the number of low-birthweight babies may be caused by multiple births among more-affluent mothers who have tried fertility treatments, many of these underweight births are also likely the result of mothers who are poor, who have not had adequate prenatal care or who have abused drugs. Some of those factors may also account for the increase in infant deaths, as well as the fact that some parents need better instruction on the proper way to put their infants to sleep.
Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, notes that some conditions for city children have improved since 2003. For instance, the city used mobile health units to increase the number of children who are immunized and it used education and a focused campaign to reduce teen pregnancies and births. Baltimore's experience shows that targeted resources and services can make a difference - a lesson that the Casey report reminds us needs to be applied statewide.