Greenville News (South Carolina), June 17, 2008: Many children don’t fare well in South Carolina

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Every year, a national study of children’s well-being identifies South Carolina as one of the worst states in the country for young people. This year, the report suggests that South Carolina has not improved but in fact is experiencing increasing rates of children living in poverty, in single-parent homes and with unemployed parents.

South Carolina ranked 46th in the nation in children’s well-being, unchanged from last year, and ahead of only Alabama, New Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi. Some of the other factors that contribute to the state’s poor showing include a high dropout rate, an increasing number of low-birthweight babies and a high infant mortality rate.

South Carolina ranks in the bottom 10 states on seven of 10 indicators. The state’s performance deteriorated in half of the measures. The figures are from 2006, the latest year available.

The study, Kids Count, should be a rallying call to both public and private sector leaders to work together to make South Carolina a place where all children can succeed. Too often, partisans argue over whether public or private programs are best equipped to improve conditions for children but the reality is that the problems are so immense as to require a concerted effort by all. Of course such things as the high number of children living in single-parent homes will not be turned around without a greater focus on individual responsibility.

The report points to one of the possible causes of some problems: South Carolina locks up too many young people. The rate of young people sent to a juvenile justice detention center is substantially higher than the national average. For every 100,000 young people ages 10-15, the state detains 185, compared to 125 nationwide. That averages 1,320 youth in custody on a daily basis — 68 percent of them for nonviolent offenses.

Putting nonviolent young people in juvenile detention, rather than moving them to alternative programs, can cause lifelong problems for them, the report says. “Over their lifetime, they will achieve less educationally, work less and for lower wages, fail more frequently to form enduring families, experience more chronic health problems (including addiction), and suffer more imprisonment,” the report states.

State officials say that illegal immigration, which depresses wages, also may be pulling down some of the rankings — for instance increasing the number of children living in poverty. The poverty rate among illegal immigrants also is far higher than the general population.

South Carolina was 42nd in child poverty, with 22 percent living in poverty — defined as income below $20,444 for a family of two adults and two children. That’s up from 19 percent in poverty in 2000.

Meanwhile, 40 percent of South Carolina children lived in single-parent families — up from 35 percent in 2000 — giving the state a ranking of 48th in the nation.

The report reflects most poorly on adults who make lifestyle choices detrimental to themselves and their own children. It almost goes without saying that children born to teen or single parents are far more likely to grow up in poverty than those born to two more mature parents who graduated at least from high school.

Because education and health care clearly are tied to a productive adult life, state leaders should work to strengthen these areas, investing particularly in early education and family health care. Public/private partnerships — such as initiatives by the March of Dimes to reduce premature births — are a vital part of the equation. Churches must be an integral part of the solution as well.

Leaders might look to other states for recommendations as to how to improve the lot of children here. There’s no reason why New Hampshire, Minnesota and Massachusetts should be far safer and far healthier places for children than South Carolina.

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