Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

July 9, 2013

Health of state's children improving

Report finds more are liviing in poverty, despite recession's end.

By Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — According to a new report, 8 percent of babies born in Indiana in 2010 had low birth weights – a surprisingly good sign for a state that’s struggled for decades to bring that number down.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released its 2013 Kids Count data book, which ranks states on 16 indicators of child well being.

Indiana ranked 30th overall, which Indiana Youth Institute CEO Bill Stanczykiewicz said isn’t all that surprising. The state falls in the middle of the pack every year. If Indiana makes gains in one area, so does the rest of the nation, he said.

What he found “really incredible,” though, were the gains the state made in terms of children’s health. This year, Indiana moved up 13 spots to 21st in the health rankings.

That’s due, in large part, to the tireless effort of local and state officials to curtail the number of low-birthweight babies, he said.

It’s an important crusade, according to the report.

“The birth of a baby reminds us of the potential that exists in every new generation,” the Kids Count report states. “Yet, the odds against thriving are higher for some newborns than for others. Babies born with a low birth weight — less than about 5.5 pounds — have a high probability of experiencing developmental problems and short- and long-term disabilities and are at greater risk of dying within the first year of life.”

While the state made only modest gains, it’s a start, he said.

“That’s been a stubborn statistic for the state for the better part of 20 years,” Stanczykiewicz said. “But it’s not time to declare victory.”

Indiana has one of the highest percentages in the nation of mothers who smoke during pregnancy, he said.

If the state could get that number under control, the number of babies born with low birth weights would plummet, he said.

He recognizes that it’s not the only factor to consider.

Recent increases in multiple births have strongly influenced the rates, according to the Kids Count report. Poor nutrition, poverty, stress, infections and violence can increase the risk of a baby being born with a low birth weight, too, the report stated.

Stanczykiewicz said smoking during pregnancy is the single largest contributing factor.

At least one area county bucked that trend.

In Miami County, the number of women who reported smoking during pregnancy increased by nearly 6 percent. More than 28 percent of pregnant women there admitted smoking. The number of babies with low birth weights, though, fell by 38 percent to 6.9 percent.

Howard County numbers are more along the lines of what Stanczykiewicz would expect.

More than 24 percent of Howard County mothers reported smoking during pregnancy in 2010, a 4 percent decrease. With that, the number of infants with low birth weights fell slightly to 6.8 percent.

The number of teen deaths and number of kids abusing drugs and alcohol statewide fell in 2010, too, giving Indiana its improved health ranking, Stanczykiewicz said.

Childhood poverty rates remain a concern nationwide, though.

Even as unemployment rates gradually fell following the recession, poverty rates in most areas continued to climb. Indiana’s rate went from 17 percent in 2005 to 23 percent in 2011.

Numbers for both Howard and Miami counties have held steady for the past three years — varying by only a percentage point in either direction. In 2011, 22.7 percent of Miami County children lived in poverty. In Howard County that number was 24.8 percent.

Those numbers are to be expected, Stanczykiewicz said.

“We keep hearing that the job market is better, but poverty is always the last indicator to move,” he said. “Our low-income neighbors are often the last to find employment.”

It doesn’t help that the number of single parent households is on the rise.

One in five Indiana children lived with a single mother in 2011, according to the report. Those children are five to six times more likely to live in poverty, Stanczykiewicz said.

The short-term solution is to make sure families have access to temporary safety nets like food stamps, he said.

More than 13,000 Howard County residents received food stamps in 2011. In Miami County, that number was 5,395.

Those safety nets are only a bandage, though.

“The long-term solution is to put a premium on education,” Stanczykiewicz said. “This report, again, confirms that. Two-thirds of jobs now require education after high school.”

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com