Children in Md. trail most in U.S. in well-being Despite prosperity of state, report cites troubling trends

March 23, 1992|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Despite Maryland's relative prosperity, the well-being of children here lags behind the national average, a report being released today concludes.

The children of Maryland were more likely than average to die in infancy, be killed as teen-agers or live with only one parent, the report says.

Maryland was ranked 29th in children's welfare, even though the state's families with children have the nation's fifth-highest median income.

"Maryland has the opportunity to do so much more. We rank fifth in wealth. Our goal should be to rank fifth in indicators of children's well-being," said Susan P. Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore non-profit group.

Conditions worsened for children in most states during the 1980s as American families had less money and less time to devote to their children, according to the statistical portrait compiled by the Washington-based Center for the Study of Social Policy.

It ranked states on nine measures ranging from low birth weight to high school dropouts.

"However you slice it, the nation as a whole moved in the wrong direction for kids," said Judith H. Weitz, report coordinator for the non-profit research organization.

"It reflects a pattern of national neglect of the well-being of children and therefore of families."

The most troubling trends in Maryland included:

* A dramatic increase in the teen violent death rate (including homicides, suicides and accidents). Eighty Maryland youths ages 15 to 19 were victims of homicides in 1989, more than twice the number of five years before.

* A substantial increase in the percentage of children living in single-parent families (27.5 percent). In addition, nearly 12 percent of Maryland children lived with someone other than their parents in 1990, well above the national average.

* A modest decline in the percentage of teen-agers who graduated from high school on time. Only 72 percent did so in Maryland.

Although Maryland ranked below average, the state improved its standing among the states from 36th in a similar study two years ago to 29th.

Maryland also bucked some negative national trends:

* Teen-age mothers accounted for a growing proportion of births nationwide, but the rate of births to single teens dipped in Maryland.

More recent state figures have also showed a slight decline in teen birth rates and a substantial decrease in abortion rates among adolescents, said Marisa Mirjafary of the Governor's Council on Adolescent Pregnancy.

Although the report focused on single mothers, married teens who have babies are no better off, she said, because "it's not like the old days where the father can drop out and work at Bethlehem Steel to support his family."

* The percentage of children in custody dropped dramatically here from 1984 to 1989 while increasing nationwide.

The decline reflected the state's effort to "keep kids out of institutions," including closing the Montrose School for delinquents in 1988, said Carol Hyman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Juvenile Services.

Michael Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor who worked to close Montrose, said the figures showed the state "did a good job in trying to expand its network of community programs for kids who didn't present security risks. The success rate has been high."

* More Maryland children lived in poverty (13.4 percent) at the end of the 1980s than a decade before. However, child poverty increased much more dramatically elsewhere. Nearly one in five American children, or 12.7 million, were poor.

Nationally, the report sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that rich families got richer and poor families got poorer.

The median income of the top fifth of American families with children was $79,000 in 1990, up 9.2 percent after inflation from 1979. The income of families in the bottom fifth was $9,190, a 12.6 percent decrease. (Comparable figures weren't available for Maryland.)

Black children face unusual risks, the report showed.

A black baby was twice as likely as a white baby in 1989 to die during the first year of life. That same year, 1,451 black teen-agers were homicide victims.

North Dakota ranked first overall in children's well-being and Mississippi last.

Among Maryland's neighbors, Pennsylvania ranked 19th, Virginia 22nd, and Delaware and West Virginia were virtually tied with Maryland.

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