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Good Economic Conditions/Good Public Policy Benefit Children

Release Date: May 22, 2001Contact: Linda O'Neal or Pam Brown
  Phone: (615) 741-2633

Tennessee is doing a better job of caring for its children, according to a rating issued today.

"The economic boom of the late 1990s coupled with TennCare eligibility for children helped Tennessee rise to 43rd from 45th in the annual KIDS COUNT state-by-state ranking of child well-being," said Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, the Tennessee KIDS COUNT partner agency.

In the 12 years of rankings Tennessee has never risen out of the bottom 20 percent on the composite score. The KIDS COUNT National Data Book, published annually, once again ranked the states on health care, education and economics and other indicators of child well-being.

While state median family incomes lag national family incomes by over $8,000, the state ranked 18th in the category of children living in families with full-time, year-round employment, and 32nd on the category of children in poverty.

These are the only two measures where Tennessee was better than the nation as a whole, but they are countered by the fact that even though more families are working, often their incomes are not sufficient to raise them out of poverty. More Tennessee children (29 percent) lived in working-poor families than in the nation as a whole (23 percent).

"The strong economy was a major reason more families were working and fewer children lived in poverty. And good public policy in the Families First program helped put welfare mothers to work by providing needed services like transportation and child care for their children," said O'Neal. "Unfortunately," she added, "as the economy has declined, the Families First rolls have increased, indicating how fragile success and progress are for low-income families."

Nearly 400,000 children under the age of 18, or 29 percent, live in working poor families. However, in Tennessee only 8 percent of these children lack health insurance, compared with 23 percent nationally. Only 10 percent of Tennessee's children go without health insurance, compared to 15 percent nationally.

"Tennessee children have significantly better access to health care than children in other states because of good public policy that enables TennCare to cover most children who do not have private health insurance," according to O'Neal.

The picture on the state's ability to keep its children alive is mixed. Infant mortality and child death rates have improved in the state, nearing the national average. However, the teen death rate has worsened in Tennessee, despite improvement nationally. The effect of the state's graduated drivers license law will not be seen in the data for several years because it is not effective until July 1, 2001.

KIDS COUNT data also highlight the need for good educational policy. More Tennessee 4th and 8th grade students scored below basic reading levels in 1998 than the national average. "Expanding early childhood education and implementing a reading initiative should ensure children learn to read, and efforts to target high school students who are at risk of failing Gateway exams required for a high school diploma are critical for improving prospects for success in school and in life," said O'Neal. "Good public policy does have tangible results in improved outcomes for children," she concluded.

In the period compared, 1990 to 1998, the state worsened on only three of ten indicators, teen death, low-birth rate babies and percent of families headed by a single parent, mirroring national trends in the later two.

The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth is the Tennessee partner of the KIDS COUNT program, which is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to disadvantaged children. For more information about KIDS COUNT or the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, see the agency's Web site at www.state.tn.us/tccy/. The 2001 KIDS COUNT National Data Book is available on the foundation's web page.

For more information, contact Linda O'Neal, executive director, TCCY, or Pam Brown, KIDS COUNT director, (615) 741-2633 or a TCCY regional coordinator from the attached list.

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