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Montana fared worse this year than last in terms of child well-being and remains last when it comes to children’s health rankings, according to the new National Kids Count Data Book.

The state dropped from 28 to 31 among other states in the findings, which are being released Tuesday as part of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 25th annual Kids Count, which weighs 16 factors in the areas of economic well-being, education, health, and family and community.

“We are working in the right direction in most areas,” said Thale Dillon, director of Montana Kids Count. “I think making a big deal out of our three-spot drop in ranking is not necessarily meaningful because what we should look at is how we’re moving ahead in these areas – not necessarily how we’re moving in relation to other states.”

While Montana retained its rank of 14 in the family and community area and remained No. 50 for children’s health, the state also dropped from 15 to 25 for economic well-being and from 13 to 21 in education.

“Even though we didn’t do poorly necessarily, other states did much better,” Dillon said of the declines in economic well-being and education.

The rankings are based on data from 2008 to 2013 compared to a base year. None of the base years are the most recent year.

In Montana, choosing a base year helps to show the long-term trend rather than the peaks and valleys that anomalies can cause, Dillon said.

“And that’s what you need to focus on, not the changes from one year to the next,” she said.

Despite the overall drop, there were several bright spots in the compiled data, including fewer teen births, fewer teens abusing drugs or alcohol, and more high school students graduating on time while more youngsters are participating in preschool programs.


Here’s how Montana fared in each of the four general areas:

Economic well-being

The state dropped 10 spots to 25 in the economic well-being assessment. The percentage of children living in poverty in 2012 remained unchanged from the 2005 percentage of 20 percent. The number of teens not in school and not working also remained unchanged at 10 percent in both 2008 and 2012.

“I think that’s a symptom of teenagers not being ready to work once they graduate high school,” Dillon said, adding that several programs are aimed at increasing student job skills before graduation.

More children are living in households where the housing cost is a third or more of the monthly income (31 percent in 2012 compared to 30 percent in 2005), and the percentage of children whose parents lack secure employment increased a percentage point from 2008 to 30 percent in 2012.

Education

Montana dropped in ranking to 21st in the education area, even though preschool attendance and on-time high school graduation rates are up.

The number of children not attending preschool improved (60 percent in 2010-2012 over 63 percent from 2005-2007). High school students not graduating on time also decreased by 4 percent in 2011-12 from 2005-06, when the number was at 18 percent.

Eighth-graders are doing better in math, with 60 percent not proficient in math, down 4 percent in 2013 from 2005. However, the number of fourth-grade students who aren’t proficient in reading increased a percentage point from 2005 to 65 percent in 2013.

A current push to create more early childhood education opportunities for young Montanans will pay off long-term and the state likely will see improved statistics across the board in education, Dillon said.

Up to now, most of the increase in the number of children in preschool settings has been privately driven, as parents and providers realize the impact of early development, she said.

“It’s moved beyond just babysitting in the past few years to a bona fide educational environment,” she added.

Family and community

Despite improvements in the number of children living in high-poverty areas (7 percent in 2008-12 versus 8 percent in 2000) and in the number of teen births per 1,000 (29 in 2012 compared to 35 in 2005), Montana held steady in its ranking of 14 for the family and community area.

More children are living in single-parent families (30 percent in 2012, up 2 percent from 2005).

However, the statistic doesn’t take into account whether the single parent is in a relationship with the child’s other parent, Dillon said.

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Contrary to the improvement in the number of high-school students graduating on time, the number of children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma increased to 8 percent in 2012, up from 7 percent in 2005.

Health

Montana’s standing in the health rating remained “abysmal,” Dillon said.

Although the rate of low-birthweight babies worsened (7.4 percent of babies in 2012 compared to 6.6 percent in 2005), Montana’s rate is still better than the national average, she said.

Three percent fewer children were without health insurance, at 11 percent in 2012 compared to 2008, a shift that mirrors the national trend and one that Dillon said she expects to continue as more families take advantage of the state’s Healthy Montana Kids program.

The number of teens who abuse alcohol or drugs dropped significantly, from 14 percent in 2005-06 to 9 percent in 2011-12.

The success can be attributed to programs that take an environmental approach to the issue and educate parents about the detrimental impacts of alcohol and drugs, as well as following good carding practices at alcohol retailers, Dillon said.

Children and teen deaths per 100,000 increased, though. In 2010, 45 of 108 deaths were for children between the ages of 1 and 19, up from 44 in 2005.

Motor vehicle crashes remain a top concern in the child and teen death statistics, as does suicide, Dillon said.

“The majority is due to motor vehicle crashes. It’s a particularly deadly state that we’re living in when it comes to driving,” she said.

Improved awareness about the importance of seat belts could help decrease the death rate, she added.

“Clearly a lot of people are either not reading the billboards or listening to the public service announcements or they don’t believe in them, because our seat-belt usage rate is not improving,” Dillon said.

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Reporter Alice Miller can be reached at 523-5251 or at alice.miller@missoulian.com.

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