Children, by the Numbers

February 06, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

Information is power, if you know how to use it.

This week, advocates for children welcomed the publication of Maryland's first ''Kids Count'' fact book. There in cold, hard numbers are the facts about children in Maryland, facts that provide ammunition for the public policy debate.

County by county, the book provides telling details that add life to the larger picture, a picture that mixes good news and bad. Infant mortality -- a key indicator of any society's standard of living -- has declined to its lowest level ever in Maryland. Child death rates have dropped and fewer children are living in poverty.

On the other hand, one in 10 babies in Maryland is born to a teen- ager, a mother who is statistically less likely to be living in a stable relationship or to be self-sufficient economically or in any other way. All these factors tend to limit a child's chances in life.

There is, however, an encouraging sign: the percentage of births to teen mothers has declined slightly in recent years, from 11.7 percent during 1985-87 to 10.8 percent during 1988-90.

More bad news: In 1989, despite a drop in the poverty level, the lives of 10 percent of Maryland's children were still blighted by poverty, a condition that can do as much damage to a child's prospects as any disease.

And from 1988 to 1990, there was an increase in the number of babies born weighing less than 5.5 pounds -- roughly the heft of a five-pound bag of sugar. To be precise, 18,743 low birth-weight babies were born during that period, compared to only 16,221 between 1985 and 1987. In other words, more babies are surviving, but many of them are facing the health and developmental problems that can result from low birth weights.

There is also sobering news about older children. The latter half of the 1980s saw a significant jump in the violent-death rate for teen-agers between 15 and 19, from 53 per 100,000 teens in 1985 to 76 in 1990. In the first years of this decade, between 1990 and 1992, there was a sharp increase in the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes.

Beyond the good and bad news, ''Kids Count'' compiles plenty of useful information. For instance, anyone who doesn't yet realize that child care is a major issue in Maryland ought to know that 70 percent of the state's 1.1 million children under 18 have no stay-at-home parent.

Only a minority of the state's children -- 22 percent -- live in two-parent households where only one parent is in the labor force; only 7 percent of children live in a single-parent household where that parent doesn't work outside the home, and fewer than 1 percent of Maryland children live in two-parent households with neither parent working.

Those figures indicate a huge market for day care and before- and after-school programs. That market is presently not being met -- certainly not with the high-quality programs that would enhance a child's development rather than simply provide baby-sitting.

In itself, a collection of numbers doesn't mean much. But by comparing a wide range of statistics county by county and tracking them over time, it will be easier to see where kids are most at risk, to design programs to meet their needs better and to hold those programs accountable for positive outcomes in young people's lives.

Like the U.S. Census, ''Kids Count'' is only a snapshot of child welfare in Maryland. The full picture is complex and always changing. But snapshots make good benchmarks.

The most striking thing about ''Kids Count'' may be that it had to be compiled at all. Given the millions of dollars in any government's budget that affect children -- from the billions spent on schools to the millions of dollars poured into social programs for the poor, from public safety budgets to parks and recreation -- you would think that government long ago would have felt the need to keep tabs on whether and how these dollars made a difference.

No so. It took a private effort -- a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation -- to produce the first of four Maryland ''Kids Count'' fact books. Maryland is one of several states to receive these grants. The hope is that by providing an annual profile of child well-being, policy makers will be better able to identify and invest in the services that produce the best results.

We talk about living in an information age, but the striking thing about many areas of public policy is how much we don't know and how often decisions are made without solid information to back them up.

As one advocate for children's programs put it this week, ''We've been making public policy in the dark. Now we have the goods.''

Let's hope her optimism is justified.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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