Alaska had the nation’s lowest rate of babies born dangerously underweight in 2017, but the highest rate of child and teenage deaths, according to the latest installment of the Kids Count report that measures how children and teens are faring.
The annual report released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation — a Baltimore-based private philanthropy group — shows that while Alaska saw some gains, it still largely fell toward the bottom of the national rankings.
Overall, Alaska ranked 45th in the nation on 16 benchmarks related to children’s quality of life, the report said. The best state for children: New Hampshire. The worst: New Mexico, according to the rankings.
The report also ranked the 50 states based on four categories: Alaska ranked 50th in health, 49th in education, 33rd in economic well-being and 21st in family and community.
“One of the most valuable resources are our children, they are the future of our state, but today Alaska’s children are hurting and families are suffering,” said Trevor Storrs, president and chief executive of Alaska Children’s Trust, a statewide non-profit focused on the prevention of child abuse and neglect, and a partner on the annual report.
Storrs said Alaska’s performance has not changed dramatically in recent years, but other states have improved. That pushes Alaska further down in the rankings, he said. In the 2015 report, Alaska ranked 27th overall. In last year’s report, it ranked 46th.
This year’s report largely draws on data from 2017.
Among the report’s key points:
• Alaska had the nation’s highest rate of children and teenagers dying at 52 deaths per 100,000 people ages 1 to 19. The report did not break down the causes of deaths in Alaska, however state data for 2013 to 2017 show teenagers from age 15 to 17 most often died by suicide or from “unintentional injuries,” including injuries from ATV and snowmachine crashes. Unintentional injuries also accounted for a significant portion of deaths of younger children.
• Alaska had the nation’s highest percentage of teens who abuse alcohol or drugs.
• Alaska had the lowest rate of babies born at under 5.5 pounds. The state’s ranking is in large part due to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services working with the tribal health system to regionalize care, according to Margaret Young, Maternal Child Health epidemiology unit manager with the state health department. Rural communities have also improved their ability to screen high-risk women and intervene early.
• 10 percent of children in Alaska didn’t have health insurance, compared to 5 percent nationwide. The report counts children as uninsured if they have coverage only under the Indian Health Service.
• Compared to the national average, Alaska had a higher percentage of fourth-graders not proficient in reading and eight-graders not proficient in math in 2017. From 2015 to 2017, 64 percent of 3 and 4 year olds weren’t enrolled in school, compared to 52 percent nationwide.
• The percent of Alaska children living in poverty increased from 14 percent in 2016 to 15 percent a year later. The percent of children in single-parent families decreased from 33 percent in 2016 to 29 percent in 2017.
Storrs said he hopes the data informs policy decisions in Alaska. He called on Alaska to invest in early education, strengthen its health care system and reduce barriers to public assistance programs such as Medicaid.
Alaska education commissioner Michael Johnson didn’t have comment Monday on the report.
He had not yet read it by early afternoon, according to Erin Hardin, spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. Hardin wrote in an email that Johnson remained committed to improving student achievement through Alaska’s Education Challenge, the state’s effort to improve public education.
Jared Parrish, a senior epidemiologist with the state’s Maternal Child Health unit, said the health-related data further highlighted areas where Alaska needs to improve, especially the child and teen death rate. Multiple projects are underway, he said.
“Any time you see a ranking it should be a conversation starter,” he said, and that’s a good thing.
He urged caution, however, when interpreting the state’s last-place ranking on health. Since it drew on just four data points, he said, he didn’t believe it provided an accurate picture of overall health in the state.
Here are the best and worst states for child well-being overall, according to the report:
1. New Hampshire
5. New Jersey
43. West Virginia
50. New Mexico