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Report: Florida kids' well-being improves

The study says the state's infant mortality is falling, and fewer teens die, get pregnant or drop out of school.

By CURTIS KRUEGER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- In two years as a single parent, Kimberly Shepherd learned the single-parenting routine:

You work to pay for day care, and pay for day care so you can work.

"You can't really afford to work and you can't afford not to work," said Shepherd, a St. Petersburg office assistant whose children are 5, 3 and 1. Without the day care subsidies she eventually received for her kids, staying afloat financially would have been "almost impossible."

An increasing number of Floridians are taking on the task of raising their children alone, whether by choice or by default.

The percentage of children living in single-parent households grew 15 percent in Florida and 13 percent in the United States from 1990 to 1997, according to the "Kids Count Data Book," an annual report on the state of America's children.

"What we are seeing . . . is a tremendous surge in women over age 20 birthing without marriage," said Jack Levine, president of the Center for Florida's Children, which assists with the nationwide report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The trend appears to be having an impact on kids' lives. In spite of a booming economy, the percentage of children living in poverty increased 5 percent, both in Florida and nationwide, during the years covered in the report.

Often, "single parenting is an economic disaster," said Levine, who stressed that he was not making a moral judgment against single parents. "A child in a single-parent household is six times more likely to be poor than a child in a two-parent household."

These trends are part of an annual report on the state of America's children, which also contains positive news about Florida's kids.

Florida ranks 36th out of the 50 states in 10 indicators of children's well-being, the report said.

Using the same indicators, Florida would have ranked between 39th and 44th throughout the 1990s, so this represents progress. Also, in Florida and the nation, infant mortality is falling, fewer teenagers are dying, teenage pregnancy is dropping and more kids are staying in school, according to the report.

"The good news is that Florida has come further and faster than any state in the nation over the seven-year period studied in this report," Levine said.

He praised the "outstanding bipartisan leadership" that has led to the Healthy Start program, generally credited with reducing infant mortality. He also commended legislation that seeks to put more scrutiny on preschools and day care to help make children ready to learn by the time they enter kindergarten.

"We think the days of leaders ignoring the core issues of kids and families are history," Levine said.

But Florida still fares worse than two-thirds of the states.

In the percentage of families headed by a single parent, Florida ranks 44th out of the states, which the state's lowest ranking among the 10 indicators. Among three areas in which the lives of children were said to have "deteriorated," single parenthood is the one with the largest increase.

That trend presents a challenge for child advocacy groups that often lobby for better government funding of prevention, education and medical programs. The reasons behind single parenting are complex, and can't be reversed by making an appeal for funding. Although conservative religious groups often have been vocal on the issue of single parenthood, it has generally not been a cause for other social activists.

Levine said that, among other things, society needs to stop sending the message to girls that they are valued more for their bodies than for their brains. That's the self-image that often leads to teenage mothers who become pregnant by latching onto older adult males. "The younger, the less stable, the more needy for the female, the more likely the victimization," he said.

But Karleen Kos, vice president for program delivery of Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa, said she's not expecting any return to the 1950s ideal of the nuclear family.

"What we've done is we've bemoaned what we don't have anymore, and it's not coming back probably, so what we need to do is build a system then that deals with the realities of the family today," Kos said.

Luane Panacek, executive director of the Hillsborough Children's Board, said her agency already is attacking the issue of poor single-parent families without using that banner. Programs designed to help children succeed in school, she said, help reduce the likelihood of many "negative outcomes," including teen pregnancy.

Shepherd, who was single until her marriage in February, said many single parents will cope simply by trying to keep their budget as tight as possible.

"You squeeze," she said.

-- The Kids Count Data Book can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.aecf.org.

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