All kids count

August 10, 2004

DESPITE ALL EFFORTS, the disparities in health and well-being between Maryland's white children and its black children not only continue, but in some cases are increasing.

Consider this trend, as reported by the 2004 Maryland Kids Count Factbook, issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation:

For each white child who died before the age of 14 in 1992, an average of 1.6 black children died; in 2002, the average is up to two black children.

That's just unacceptable.

Other measures of health have shown some improvement, but not by nearly enough: While fewer black infants are dying in their first year of life, they are still nearly 2 1/2 times as likely to do so as white babies.

And black babies are nearly twice as likely as white babies to be born underweight (though the gap between them is closing).

These statistics should sound claxons of alarm, especially in a city where the majority of children are not white. Failing so many now will cost all Marylanders much more in future -- in money and in the health of the society.

While some of the problems tracked in the report result from personal or family irresponsibility -- teens having babies, children dropping out of school -- most would benefit from better, consistent attention from elected officials and private organizations.

More children than ever are enrolling in the state-sponsored Infants and Toddlers programs of physical and speech therapy run by county schools and departments of social services, for example, but the money, from grants and state, county and private sources, is drying up.

Social services departments are chronically short on staff and dollars; strapped municipalities are trying to pick up the slack, but some cannot even maintain their own outreach programs.

It has been that better -- but now threatened -- outreach, especially to teens and to pregnant and new mothers, that has shown the most positive results. In 2002, 84 percent of mothers started prenatal care in their first trimester, a 5 percent jump for white women and a 22 percent jump for black women. The state teen birth rate also has dropped by 25 percent in the decade covered in the Kids Count report.

Year over year, the state showed gains in 14 of the 19 categories the report uses to measure child well-being, including school attendance, single-parent households and median family income. But that sounds better than it is. Maryland's ranking on this scale of attention and care paid to the future -- 27th of the 50 states -- is hardly something for a well-to-do state to crow about. More than 144,000 of the state's children are still growing up in poverty.

While the state is tracking, fitfully, in the right direction, too many of its future adults are still fighting to stay on the track. They all deserve a fighting chance.

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