Mixed news on children’s health

Feb. 28, 2014 @ 05:12 PM

A new “report card” on the health of Durham’s children had some positive news for the community this week – but as so often happens with such reports, the verdict was mixed.

Teen pregnancy is down, for example – from 40.2 per 1,000 girls ages 15-17 in 2007 to just 30.4 teen births per 1,000 girls in 2012, the most recent year for which the report had data.

The good news is, that’s a 24 percent decrease. Statewide, however, the drop was even sharper – a 43 percent dip from 34.8 births per 1,000 to 19.7.

More children are getting dental care and more are covered by insurance, both positive trends. More are graduating from high school – up 16 percent from 2008 to just shy of 77 percent in the 2011-12 school year.

That number is especially encouraging as schools and the community strive to ensure more students to finish high school. While a high-school education is insufficient for most decently paying jobs today, we know our increasingly knowledge-based economy is especially punishing to those who fail to even finish high school.

The graduation and teen-parenting trends were no coincidence, said Laila A. Bell, director of research and data at NC Child, the advocacy agency that released this week’s report card. “Both of these indicators have been targeted by well-funded state efforts,” she said. “This improvement should give us hope that we can make progress on big problems when we’re willing to put resources behind data-driven solutions.”

Perhaps most troubling were the report’s findings on poverty, especially among children. It is no surprise that the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression pushed many more of our fellow residents below the poverty line -- and Mayor Bill Bell in his State of the City address earlier this month joined a growing chorus of officials, academics and interested citizens raising alarms and calling for action against poverty.

The child health report noted that child poverty in Durham has increased more than 40 percent since 2007.  Overall, just under one in five Durhamites lived in poverty in 2012 – more than one in four, 27.6 percent, of those under 18.  That is about 1,700 impoverished children – 600-plus more than in 2007. More recent statistics have indicated little change in those numbers.

Not surprisingly, given those figures, one in five children in Durham lives in a household that has difficulty consistently meeting basic food needs.

“Food insecurity is a very serious byproduct of poverty that’s making its presence felt in Durham County,” NC Child’s Bell told Herald-Sun reporter Keith Upchurch. “No child should ever go to bed hungry, but unfortunately that’s what’s happening all across the county.”

No magic wand, no single effort, will improve those numbers. Just as it has taken a concerted effort to improve many indicators on this report card, it will take a far greater effort than we as a community and a state have yet to launch to sharply diminish poverty.

But it is an effort we must make if we want a truly healthy community.