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Report shows life hard for children in Mississippi

The percent of Mississippi children living in poverty is on the rise, but the state’s high school dropout rate has declined.

Those findings were released Tuesday as part of the annual Kids Count report on the health and well-being of children and teens.

The report measures each state’s progress on 10 statistics, including infant mortality, poverty rates, single-parent families and babies born with low birth weights.

While the report shows that there were a few positive trends in Mississippi, including the dropout rate decline from 15 to 10 percent, the state remains among the worst places in the nation for many children to live.

“We believe that every child deserves a healthy start and successful start to adulthood. … We understand through the Kids Count report this goal and mission has not been met by the state of Mississippi,” said Latisha Latiker, a regional program officer for the Children’s Defense Fund.

The report, compiled mostly from Census data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said Mississippi is at the bottom nationally in the following categories: children in poverty, teen birth rates, infant mortality and low-birth weight babies.

The state’s teen birth rate improved by 10 percent between 2000 and 2003. The percent of children living in poverty rose 19 percent between 2000 and 2004.

“The bottom line is that families are not receiving the work supports that they need to provide for their children,” said Latiker, who also criticized the lack of a state funded early-education program.

Latiker said elected officials are in a position to support a higher minimum wage, earned income credit for low-income families and other legislative measures, such as the proposed grocery tax cut that Gov. Haley Barbour vetoed during the 2006 session.

“Although it would have affected everyone, it would have helped low-income families the most,” she said of the tax cut that would have coincided with a tax increase on cigarettes.

Pete Smith, a spokesman for the governor, said Barbour’s administration is working on long-range plans to improve the quality of life in Mississippi, including economic development, health and work force training initiatives.

“There’s no quick fix to solving the problems that the report says we have,” Smith said.

House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said he receives a copy of the report each year.

“I’m always diminished to know that children are struggling, which this report indicates,” said Holland. “I don’t think this is because we’re mean-spirited. Our resources are always limited. It’s hard to make children priority.”

Holland said it’s difficult to pay for a statewide early education program when lawmakers are having trouble funding K-12 public schools.

Senate Public Health Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said he’s hoping a new Child Death Review Panel, based at the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, will recommend ways to reduce the state’s infant mortality rate.

He said an earlier panel, the Infant Mortality Task Force, rarely met during the years it was charged with that responsibility. The task force, which was housed in the state Department of Health, has since been dissolved.

Nunnelee said the state has taken steps to improve the deficiencies in prenatal care for low-income families. He cites the Division of Medicaid’s medical home program, which assigns each patient a primary care provider.

“If we begin the care they need earlier in their pregnancy rather than later, it will help,” Nunnelee said.