Seat belt buckle up

Wyoming and Montana rank in the middle of the states — 21st and 22nd, respectively — for overall child well-being in the 2019 Kids Count data book released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. But the 30th annual report shows the two states have above-average room for improvement in kids' health.

Wyoming ranks 49th for child health, worse than every state but Alaska, largely because Wyoming's rate of uninsured children is 10 percent — double the national average and 1 percentage point higher than in 2000. Wyoming's child death rate exceeds the national average, although the state rate dropped between 2000 and 2017. The percentage of Wyoming teens who abuse alcohol or drugs remains above the national average, although the state rate declined in the past few years.

Montana ranked 44th for child health. Despite dramatic improvements in the proportion of children covered with health insurance, decreasing the rate of teen births and decreasing the rate of child deaths, Montana is behind all but a few other states.

Buckling up

A 50 percent reduction in traffic fatalities involving people under age 18 is the greatest factor improving child health measures in the past 10 years, according to Thale Dillon, longtime director of Montana Kids Count at the University of Montana. Recent surveys indicate that over the past decade, Montana youth have increased their use of seat belts, while becoming less likely to drive drunk or to ride in a vehicle with a drunken driver, Dillon told The Gazette Monday.

Not coincidentally, the reduction in youth traffic deaths coincides with Montana's introduction of graduated driver's licenses for drivers under age 18, putting restrictions on the youngest drivers to promote safer driving.

"A lot of small factors have been adding up," Dillon said.

Unfortunately, Montana's child death rate remains above the national average because of suicides. The toll of suicide has not trended lower.

Like Wyoming, Montana has a higher rate of teen alcohol and drug use than the national average, according to Kids Count. In Montana, the No. 1 drug teens abuse is alcohol, Dillon said. The rate of teen use of marijuana, opioids and other illegal drugs is close to average.

Low math skills

Montana ranked 20th in education while Wyoming ranked 14th, but the data is not cause for much celebration. In Wyoming, 59% of fourth-graders aren't proficient in reading while 65% of eighth-graders lack math proficiency. In Montana, 62% of fourth-graders aren't reading at grade level and 63% of eighth-graders aren't proficient in a math. And the math lack of proficiency got significantly worse between 2009 and 2017. Those rates are better than the national average, but the national average is abysmal.

Montana's eighth-grade math proficiency declined by 13% percent, Dillon noted. These are poor results for the foundational skills students will need to succeed in Montana's workforce, she said. Children who haven't learned to read well by fourth grade lack the reading skills needed to learn other subjects. Students who miss out on math skills won't be ready to do the technical and more complex jobs demanded in Montana's tight labor market, she said.

The data compiled by Kids Count gives policy makers and other citizens useful information to assess our children's well-being — data that can be used to plan private and public initiatives. We encourage K-12 school trustees and legislators to review the report. It should be required reading for the Montana Legislature's Interim Committee on Children, Families, Health and Human Services, which has scheduled its first meeting for June 27 in Helena.

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This editorial originally appeared in the Billings Gazette. 

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