Making kids count

March 29, 1993

There has been no shortage of alarms sounded about the state of young families in Maryland and elsewhere. Too many babies born to unmarried teens. Too many children growing up in poor, single-parent households. Too little support for families who are struggling to keep food on the table, a roof overhead and some semblance of the emotional warmth and stability that should characterize every child's home. Even so, it's instructive to see the facts and figures set out in orderly but numbing detail, as found in a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The "Kids Count Data Book" contains state-by-state statistical profiles of child well-being. Using 1985 as a base year, it measures 10 indicators of child and adolescent health, education and socioeconomic status.

A key point of this exercise is that the health and well-being of young children, who are often the focus of public programs, cannot be separated from the well-being of adolescents, an age less likely to elicit official concern. Yet it is those same adolescents -- many of them troubled and unprepared for self-sufficient adulthood -- who are having babies and creating new, "at-risk" families.

One lesson of this and other studies of child welfare is that public policy needs to give greater weight to the plight of adolescents -- their education, their fitness for the work force and, of course, their physical and mental health. One-fourth of all adolescents contract a sexually transmitted disease before finishing high school. A full 5 percent of all teens 16 to 19 years old are idle -- not working, not in school, not in the military and not homemakers. Remember the old saw about idleness and the devil's workshop?

For Marylanders, the important news is that while some progress has been made in the well-being of younger children, prospects for youth in the state are declining, not improving. An increase in the state's arrest rate for violent juvenile crime, a drop in the high school graduation rate, the fact that, in 1990, one out of 10 new families in the state was headed by single teen-agers who had not finished high school -- these are the kinds of statistics that signal more trouble ahead.

In the state-by-state ranking of child and adolescent well-being, Maryland comes in 30th. That's not good enough. A state rightly proud of its resources, heritage and history should show more determination to ensure a better future.

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