Kids count, or do we count them out?

Sunday, June 16, 2002

KENNETT, Mo. -- None of us has ever seen a movie in which a life-threatening emergency prompts the call, "Children last!" Regardless of the disaster, the first group to be saved always includes women and children, with an emphasis on the societal belief that the most vulnerable among us deserve more protection than the rest.

Taking care of the weakest is an unspoken mark of civilized behavior, although even in primitive societies there is an inherent recognition of vulnerability requiring that the well-being of the youngest merits first priority.

This is true except in one of America's greatest institutions: state legislatures, which by their unique quality are able to correct societal inequities and mend the tattered images of our society as no other democratic institution.

Oh, it's true that governors can propose corrective programs, but they lack the authority to finance them. Courts may strike down programs already in existence, but they have no right to implement or inaugurate improved ones.

Although the remedy is not always offered, only the members of a state legislature can correct the needs of any constituency -- and they are not hesitant in attempting to do so. Lawmakers are attentive to individual economic groups, such as union members, farmers, teachers, truckers, professionals, bankers, lawyers and even governmental workers.

The list is almost endless, as are other societal groups in our midst that often receive attention from the public's representatives: Senior citizens, veterans, welfare recipients, minorities, as well as several other single-interest blocs.

There is a noticeable lapse, however, in many legislative agendas when it comes time to meet the needs of children, particularly those with special needs or who merit programs that are innovative and, yes, often expensive.

If one looks closely at the records of most legislative bodies, there is seldom a program designed to improve the health care of special-category children, particularly the children in underprivileged families, whose principal benefactor has usually proved to be the federal government rather than its state counterparts.

Lyndon Johnson became a leading proponent of caring for the health and medical needs of children, and legislation he proposed and strong-armed through the Congress required the states to take more responsibility in this area through matching federal grants.

Indeed, that has been the sole contribution of scores of state legislatures since the late 1960s and early 1970s. It has certainly been the record of the Missouri legislature in more recent years except during the second Carnahan term when a large group of poverty-level children in Missouri were included in a medical insurance program, a plan that raised considerable opposition among too many indifferent lawmakers.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation, created to promote child-health programs, has been tracking the progress of every state for the past 13 years. The study measures the well-being of children under the age of 18, and over this period Missouri has ranked in the bottom half every year, recording only the barest of improvements. Our state now ranks 26th, placing us behind neighboring Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas and barely above low-ranking Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Here are some facts that reveal the lack of concern in Jefferson City for thousands and thousands of children:

In our state we have 146,000 children who live in poor or nearly poor families, while 11 percent of all children in the state are living in low-income households.

Of the more than 1.4 million children in the state, 8 percent still do not have health insurance, and 18 percent in low-income families are without coverage.

These statistics are discouraging, made even more so by the poor outlook in today's economy and the escalation of the cost of health services everywhere.

Child health in Missouri impacts every facet of life, from school dropouts to early pregnancies to rotten economic prospects to juvenile crime, facts which seem to elude our state legislators year after year.

The Casey Foundation surveys have been able to spot trends that indicate a strong correlation between programs in place and improved living conditions for children. This is an important fact that points to the conclusion that the more state effort involved, the better the lives of all children. According to a study official, whether the programs are expensive or not, the more attention focused, the better the results.

A look at individual state rankings reveals a wide disparity of effort, particularly among rates for childhood deaths, teen accidents and births by teens. In these three categories, the worst performing states had a rate more than three times that of the best performing states.

First and foremost in this category is the fact that fewer teens are having babies. Nationally the figure dropped from 37 births per 1,000 females, ages 15 to 17, in 1990 to 29 births per 1,000 last year. Missouri's rate was 27 births.

Second, the share of children growing up in single-parent families range from a low of 17 percent in Utah to a high of 36 percent in Louisiana. In our state, the rate is 27 percent, mirroring the U.S. rate.

Let's not forget that Missouri's children, under the age of 18, number 1,427,692, a figure representing 26 percent of all the state's residents. This figure alone demands more attention than it has traditionally received.

Isn't it interesting -- and revealing -- why some elected officials can support taxpayer money for a $370 million baseball stadium but can't find a dime to improve the care, treatment and health of what we call our most precious assets?

Jack Stapleton is the editor of Missouri News & Editorial Service.

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