Children's lives near bottom in Baltimore Study of 50 cities measures poverty, health, well-being

February 19, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

Life is worse for children growing up in Baltimore than in most of the nation's other big cities, according to a new study placing Baltimore at the bottom of the statistical heap with deeply troubled cities such as Detroit, Washington and St. Louis.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national organization based in Baltimore and devoted to improving the lives of disadvantaged children, measured child poverty, health and well-being in the nation's 50 biggest cities. Baltimore was second from last on percentage of high school dropouts and births to teen-agers younger than 18 and near the bottom on most of the other measures.

"The implications are important for Baltimore," said Douglas W. Nelson, president of the Casey Foundation, "but they're even more important for the region and the state of Maryland."

Nelson said the study, being published today, offers a chilling vision of children growing up in communities that are increasingly isolated from the mainstream, closed off from opportunity and sentenced to ever-deepening poverty and failure.

"It's a problem for all of us," he said. "The region will not prosper if we lose the potential of 15 to 20 percent of our children. People who live in the suburbs and turn their back on the cities do so at their own peril."

If the debilitating consequences of urban poverty go unchallenged, the nation will not have enough workers to support its pensioners or compete in the worldwide market, Nelson said.

According to the report, called "City Kids Count":

Baltimore tied with Dallas and St. Louis for the worst high school dropout rate in the nation; 21 percent of youths 16 to 19 were high school dropouts in 1990, compared with a 50-city average of 14 percent.

Baltimore tied with New Orleans with 11 percent of all births to teen-agers younger than 18. Only St. Louis was worse, with 12 percent. The national city average was 7 percent in 1994.

The percentage of low birth-weight babies in Baltimore was 13.6 percent in 1994; only Detroit (13.7) and Washington (14.2) had worse rates.

In 1990, 53 percent of Baltimore's children lived in single-parent families, compared with the 50-city average of 35 percent. That put Baltimore in 48th place, just above Atlanta with 58 percent and Detroit with 60 percent.

In 1989, 32 percent of Baltimore's children lived in households receiving public assistance. Only six other cities had higher rates, with Detroit highest at 45 percent.

In that year, 32 percent of Baltimore's children lived in poverty; 13 other cities had higher rates, with Detroit and New Orleans the highest at 46 percent.

Baltimore had a high percentage of children living in "distressed" neighborhoods -- 33 percent in 1990. Five other cities had higher rates, ranging from New Orleans with 39 percent to Detroit with 62 percent. Distressed neighborhoods had poverty rates above 24.7 percent, more than 36.8 percent of families headed by women and more than 45 percent of men unemployed.

The Casey foundation publishes a yearly, state-by-state report on the condition of children but those statistics mask growing deprivation in the nation's cities, Nelson said.

"Our cities are becoming home to too much hardship and failed (( potential," he said.

For example, the statewide "Kids Count" reported that 11 percent of Maryland's children were living in poverty (a figure that includes the city).

The "City Kids Count" report found that 32 percent of Baltimore's children are living in poverty.

Those figures underscore the importance of reforming welfare and education in the nation's cities, Nelson said.

"In Baltimore, one-third of the kids will be affected by welfare reform, but fewer than one in 10 are affected statewide," he said.

Those reforms must concentrate on re-establishing bridges with the larger community, where work is more widely available and ** where more kids succeed than fail in school, Nelson said.

"Welfare reform is an opportunity to innovate," he said, to establish networks to improve employment opportunities and education.

Jennean Everett-Reynolds, project director for Maryland Kids Count, said she hoped the shocking statistics -- Baltimore has worse figures than New York City -- would prompt action.

"There's such hot debate about education and welfare reform now," she said. "This reminds us we all need to feel more responsibility for the city. Hopefully, people will sit up and take notice."

More than ever, Baltimore is becoming "a tale of two cities," said Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, a Maryland organization that published a guide to state welfare reform yesterday.

"I think everyone's feeling stumped about how to turn these trends around," Jackson said. "I don't see all the leadership doing all they can to plan proactively. We've been in denial far too long. But if the city goes down, it will pull the whole region down with it."

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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