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    A Times Editorial

    Progress on kids is very thin

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2001

    The latest Kids Count report offers Floridians some reasons to be pleased, but the overall record is nothing to celebrate. As many strides as Florida has made in child welfare over the past decade, the state still lags far behind the national average in nearly every category of child well-being. Florida may be among the richest states in the nation, but you wouldn't always know it from how it treats its children.

    Florida inched up to an all-time high in this year's general ranking, compiled by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation. But beneath that encouraging veneer remain several persistent problems: More Florida kids live in poverty now than 10 years ago -- worse than the national average -- and just as many today as in 1990 are likely to drop out of high school, if and when they get to that point.

    Florida is in the top 20 states in per-capita income. It should not be too pleased with itself when more than one of every five of its children continue to live in poverty, some in families earning less than $8,000 a year. That is especially true when children's programs have to fight for every dollar -- as they did this past legislative session when critical needs, including for early-education preparedness, were passed over in favor of tax breaks and lawmakers' pet projects.

    Florida has had some tremendous successes. Although the infant mortality rate worsened slightly in 1998 (the latest year covered), more Florida infants than ever are surviving birth and reaching adulthood. We have brought infant mortality down 25 percent since 1990 -- a decline outstripping the national rate -- and made sure fewer children and teens die from accidents, homicides or suicides. Those successes did not come out of the blue but were predictable payoffs from investments over the last decade in programs such as Healthy Start.

    But even those gains have to be viewed in context. All the hard work in reducing infant mortality has brought Florida up merely to the national average, and Florida continues to experience a baffling but depressingly steady increase in babies born underweight.

    Florida should hold off celebrating at least until its Kids Count ranking -- despite improvement, still 35th among all states -- parallels its demonstrated capacity to do better.

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