In the News – Vermont’s National Ranking in Child Well-Being

RUTLAND HERALD/ TIMES ARGUS

Vermont scores high nationwide in study about kids

July 29, 2009

By Louis Porter VERMONT PRESS BUREAU

MONTPELIER – Vermont fared well compared to other states in an annual report on children’s welfare and health. This year, Vermont is ranked eighth among states by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count report, and it is normally among the top 10.

The small number of Vermonters – there are 131,000 children in the state, according to the study – means the state is susceptible to wide swings in its statistics based on a relatively small number of incidents. For instance, the number of children dying by age 14 jumped several percentage points in 2006, when the newest data is available.

However, the state’s small size also means every one of those deaths is tracked and studied by public health officials, and it appears to be a statistical anomaly, said Dr. Donald Swartz, a pediatrician who is medical director of the Vermont Department of Health.

“Because of our small numbers, we are highly susceptible to massive swings like this,” Swartz said. “The advantage of being small is that we can look at each occurrence and look at it.”

The risk is on both sides – that Vermont may become too satisfied by what appears to be an encouraging trend, or focus too much on a statistic that does not really represent a trend, he added.

Overall, Vermont is doing fairly well in protecting the health of children, at least when compared to other states, Swartz said.

“I don’t think we are perfect,” he said. But “the programs we are mounting, and the policies and emphasis we are putting in place are really benefiting our kids overall,” he said.

One of the reasons Vermont does so well in the national report is its health insurance programs for children – about 43 percent of Vermont children are on Medicaid or Dr. Dynasaur, said Carlen Finn, executive director of Voices for Vermont’s Children, which helped gather the state’s data for the report.

“What this report does is reflect some of the good things we are doing in Vermont,” she said. “That commitment is to make sure that children and pregnant women have access to health insurance and really access to health care.”

Still, the state ranks well in measures such as the percentage of children living below the federal poverty line – eighth overall – there still are 16,000 kids in poverty in Vermont, Finn said.

“We have a real problem with child poverty in this country,” she said.

And another thing that worries Finn is that the new report, released Tuesday, contains data only through 2006 or 2007, depending on the category – and that was well before the recession hit Vermont and the rest of the nation.

“That means that this rate of poverty does not reflect the economic downturn, or what is going on in the state right now,” Finn said. “That is a real concern.”

While Vermont has a robust set of services for poor families, as a rural state, it has a different set of problems than states with more urban populations, Finn said.

“Rural communities struggle the most,” she said. “It is the hardest area to really address all of the different problems that families face.

“Those are areas that we need to take on as a state, the rural nature of poverty in Vermont,” she said.

That means additional problems of transportation and access to medical care, for instance, Finn said.

Rob Hofmann, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, agreed with Swartz that the individual statistics in the report can be skewed because of the state’s limited population.

“We are naturally happy that Vermont improved in this report over last year,” he said. “It is much more important for us to look at these indicators broadly.”

“We still live and work on a human scale in Vermont. Each one of those can be viewed as an individual case,” Hofmann said. “Each one of these can be a person, not just a statistic.”

There also is a variation between different parts of the state for some of the statistics. For instance, in Washington County in 2007, about 10.8 percent of children were living in poverty, unchanged compared with 2003.

In Rutland County, that percentage was 14.2 percent in 2007, up from 13 percent in 2003.

In portions of the Northeast Kingdom, however, the numbers are much higher. About 18.5 percent of children were living in poverty in 2007 in Caledonia County, up from 16.4 percent in 2003.

Health statistics, in general, showed less change depending on the region of the state than the economic indicators. For instance, in Caledonia County, about 7.4 percent of babies were born at low birth weights in 2007, while Washington County had 6.5 percent; Rutland County had 6 percent.

There are some worrisome trends, such as an increase in teen pregnancies and births to teenage mothers, which Vermont and the rest of the country is struggling with, Swartz said. While this year the teen birth rate dropped in Vermont and nationally, overall it is a concern, he said.

The state and nation’s public health infrastructure will have to face that challenge, he said.

“Much of what we do in public health is a matter of informing and encouraging and informing a set of behaviors,” Swartz said.

louis.porter@rutlandherald.com

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