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Pennsylvania was one of only five states to slip three places in child well-being rankings issued in the annual “Kids Count Data Book” to be released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, with the biggest drop in child health data.

“I think the big take-away in this report is that Pennsylvania is heading in the wrong direction,” said Joan Benso, president of the Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, an advocacy group that compiles its own data on similar issues. “And when you really unearth the data you see that other states are getting ahead of us while we stand still.

The report looks at 16 indicators and groups them into four “domains” — economic, education, health and family/community — ranking states in each domain and then compiling a single overall rating. Pennsylvania slipped from an overall rank of 14th last year to 17th.

The single biggest change was in child health, where the Keystone State dropped from eighth to 22nd. Kids Count looks at the percentage of children who lack health insurance, child and teen death rates, low-birth weight babies and teen substance abuse including alcohol.

The state slipped from 23rd to 25th in the family/community domain, which is based on poverty rates, teen birth rates, single-parent rates and education level of the head of the household. The state kept the same ranking it had last year in the education and economic domains, eighth and 17th respectively.

The report made available before official release this morning did not include county level data, but Pennsylvania Partnership had some comparable information. The news is mixed.

According to the report, 23 percent of children live in poverty nationwide, with Pennsylvania fairing slightly better at 20 percent. Luzerne County’s rate is 22.4 percent. The county has a higher rate of low-birth-weight babies — 8.7 percent — than the state or nation, 8.3 percent and 8.1 percent respectively. But the state and the county fare better in the percentage of children without health insurance — 5 percent — than the national rate of 7 percent.

Benso said one of the best ways to reduce the number of uninsured children may be to reverse Gov. Tom Corbett’s decision not to participate in a federal expansion of Medicaid, even though the state has a separate program for uninsured children.

“The evidence suggests that families look for family solutions,” Benso said, meaning uninsured parents will often not enroll their children in a separate program.

Pennsylvania does only slightly better than the nation as a whole in percentage of students living in single-parent households: 34 percent in the commonwealth compared to 35 percent countrywide. The numbers are similar for children whose parents “lack secure employment,” 31 percent in Pennsylvania and 32 percent nationwide.

The Pennsylvania Partnerships website offered the data from a different angle: percent of different types of families. In Luzerne County, 39.2 percent of families with children were single parent. Of those, 33.2 percent of single mothers and 12.2 percent of single fathers were not employed.

Benso blamed the state’s slip in the rankings on misdirected investment of state money, including cuts in public education funding in Corbett’s first two years, which have sent a ripple effect of larger classroom sizes, program cuts and less availability of quality pre-school programs.

“We are seeing some worrisome trends,” she said. “In places where we are standing still, other states are figuring out how to expand child care despite the weak economy.

“Children don’t get to wait until the economy recovers or policy makers decide they are a priority. Children get one chance. If they miss pre-school, they don’t get a chance to take it again.”
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