This story originally appeared here and is published by Carolina Public Press through a content-sharing agreement with North Carolina Health News.

By Rose Hoban, North Carolina Health News

The health and educational status of kids in North Carolina has remained about the same, despite tremendous challenges, according to an annual report released Tuesday.

But the annual Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count report also shows that North Carolina’s children have lost economic ground to children in other states. And advocates say changes in state policies put kids at risk of losing more economic security in the coming year.

The state’s overall ranking slipped one place, from 34th to 35th last year, but Laila Bell from Action for Children North Carolina said that could be just a statistical issue.

“It’s unclear if the drop year-over-year is a quirk in the data or the start of a decline,” Bell said. “Overall, (the) rank is pretty much stable, while some states jumped significantly. The drop might be a function of different indicators being used.”

Information & graphic courtesy Annie E. Casey Foundation

Information & graphic courtesy Annie E. Casey Foundation

Bell said the outlook for kids’ health has been holding steady for several years. For instance, she pointed out that although the rate of low birth-weight babies dropped from 9.2 percent to 9.1 percent, the drop is not statistically significant.

“Essentially, it’s remained unchanged,” said Bell. She noted that the rate is a problem, “because we know that low birth-weight children have stiffer odds as they get older. We know that low birth-weight babies are at a greater risk of dying young, and they have more chronic problems such as heart disease and diabetes.”

Health insurance coverage rates for children improved over the multiyear cycle of the report, dropping from 10 percent of children being uninsured in 2008 to 8 percent in 2011.

“We know that children need medical coverage to achieve and maintain good health,” Bell said.

Bell pointed out that employer-sponsored and private health insurance coverage rates have both declined in North Carolina over that time period, but that there are other ways children can access health insurance, such as Medicaid and North Carolina’s Children’s Health Insurance Plan.

“We are doing a better job of making sure these programs exist to give coverage during different economic times,” Bell said. “Those rates are a testament to the investment made in those two programs.”

Storm clouds looming

However, Bell said she worries about the potential for real problems emerging in the next year or two as new policies passed by the state legislature go into effect.

She noted, in particular, changes to the state’s unemployment policies. Starting next week, unemployment benefits will be lowered and limited to 20 weeks’ duration.

Information & graphic courtesy Annie E. Casey Foundation

Information & graphic courtesy Annie E. Casey Foundation

The report shows a 24 percent increase in North Carolina children who live in poverty, and that now about one-in-three children live in a household were parents lack secure employment.

“Kids living in households with unemployed parents will suffer,” Bell said.

More and more children are being exposed to these negative factors that potentially reduce health outcomes and erode academic outcomes, she said, “and this is concerning because we’ve seen a scaling back in the types of investments that help reduce childhood poverty.”

Bell noted, for example, the sunset of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which was repealed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory.

“We know that for low-income working families, the EITC helps stretch tight budgets,” she said of the credit that topped out at $272 for a family with three children.

“Families report using that money to purchase food and things like eyewear and braces,” Bell said. “Some families report using that money to start saving when they don’t have the ability to save throughout the year.”

“I was thinking about this report in the context of what’s happening at the state level right now,” said Rob Thompson, head of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children, an advocacy organization.

“We have all these health and safety indicators making positive progress, and I keep connecting it back to the Child Fatality Task Force, which works on these issues,” Thompson said.

A proposal in the House budget would eliminate the long-running task force that brings together dozens of children’s health experts from around the state to educate and advise lawmakers on policy.

“This is one of the only areas where we’re making progress, and the legislature has proposed getting rid of it,” Thompson said.

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