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    State moves up a rung in child welfare ranking

    A national study on how well states care for their young indicates Florida could do better.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 2001

    A new report says the lives of Florida's children improved during the 1990s, an encouraging note for a state that ranks near the bottom in caring for children.

    [Times photo: James Borchuck]
    Keiona Lee, left, and Napoleon Maxwell, both 5 of St. Petersburg, try to think of things that begin with the letter "y" Monday at the Fillmore Head Start Center, 1900 12th Street S.
    The bad news is that in many ways the state still is much closer to the bottom than it should be.

    Florida ranked 35th in the latest measure of how well states are caring for their children, according to the newest edition of Kids Count, released Monday by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

    Although that might not sound like much to celebrate, it is a notch above the ranking of 36th from the year before, and a significant improvement from earlier years in the decade, when Florida scored as low as 43rd.

    But Florida ranks 19th in the nation in per-capita income, a strong indication that the state can do more, said Jack Levine, a spokesman for the Kids Count project and president of the Center for Florida's Children.

    "There are some states that include Florida, which are deficient in meeting our potential for investing in children," Levine said.

    Kids Count analyzes 10 factors affecting children's well-being, including infant mortality, teen births, the drop-out rate, child poverty and the number of children living in single-parent homes.

    The report released Monday is from 1998, the latest year for which data from all 50 states is available.

    Comparing 1990 figures to 1998, Florida's ranking improved in several categories: from 32nd to 22nd in infant mortality, from 42nd to 27th in the death rate for children under 15, from 38th to 34th in teen pregnancy and from 40th to 30th in the percentage of children living with parents who were not employed full time.

    The report credits Florida's Healthy Start prenatal care program and after-school mentoring programs for some of the improvements.

    But Florida's ranking slipped in some categories: from 42nd to 46th in families headed by single parents and from 34th to 37th in low birth-weight babies. The researchers track how many children live in single-parent families because that situation is more likely to result in poverty.

    In spite of the generally anti-tax stance of Florida's Legislature and governor, Levine said the state should raise additional tax revenue and pour it into a trust fund for children's "prevention programs," which include quality day care and children's health care services.

    "It's not that Florida is under-spending on the big picture of childrens' needs; but we are spending money on the failure side of the ledger in dropout rates, in youth-crime rates and in child-abuse rates," Levine said.

    He added: "Where a state has its greatest potential is not only in spending more but investing more in the right age groups."

    Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, said the report is valuable for showing Florida's improvements and for pointing out the need for more progress.

    "We ought to do better just because our kids are our future," he said.

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