La Plata County kids are hanging in there

Well-being indicators show they’re in the middle

Children in La Plata County are faring better than the state average by some measures, and worse by others, according to the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

Every year, the Children’s Campaign collects and publishes detailed, county-by-county statistics related to early cognitive development, K-12 education and health care.

“These are simple areas (on the surface), but they get more complicated as we get into the weeds,” said network coordinator Liz Houston.

The 2012 report includes a composite score for 25 of Colorado’s most densely populated counties – where 95 percent of the state’s children live – based on 12 indicators: birth weight, infant mortality, uninsured children, child obesity, teen birth rate, high school dropouts, and number of single-parent households, families living below the poverty line, births to women who dropped out of school, families reliant on low-cost food, teens not attending school or working, and fourth-grade students reading below grade level.

Of the 25, La Plata County finished with a rank of 11; neighboring Montezuma County was 21st. The other counties in Southwest Colorado were not ranked because their sample size of children was too small, said research and policy analyst Sarah Hughes.

Among the findings:

Colorado’s youth population is growing in number and diversity. There are now 1.2 million children, 11 percent more than 2000, compared with the national average of 2.6 percent growth (although La Plata County grew a more modest 5 percent). Much of the increase comes from Hispanic children, who now account for 30 percent of all new in-state births and will be the most populous group of children by 2021 if trends hold. Hughes noted that children of color are at greater risk for health problems and subpar school performance. It was imperative, she said, to close the ethnic “achievement gap” if Colorado is to sustain a well-functioning economy, because those children will make up the future workforce and tax base.

La Plata County’s child poverty rate of 14 percent is misleadingly low because of high cost of living. Eligibility for programs such as Medicaid and reduced-price school meals often depends on a household’s income relative to the Federal Poverty Level – currently $22,350 for a family of four. In reality, Hughes said, a family here needs nearly three times that figure – or about $60,000 – to cover basic needs such as housing, child care, health insurance, food and transportation.

In the health sector, La Plata County lags behind in uninsured children, at 16.5 percent. Like other resort towns, many of their parents take seasonal jobs that don’t offer employer-based coverage. Also, families that are newly poor and have never relied on public assistance before can be unaware of the programs available to them, such as Child Health Plan Plus. Lack of insurance is problematic, both for those left exposed and for society: “Uninsured children, who don’t have a primary-care doctor, are nine times more likely to be hospitalized for a (would-be minor) problem because their parents wait until the problem gets worse,” Hughes said. “They end up in the ER and costs are passed on to insured people.”

Food-wise, poverty manifests itself in two divergent ways. Some families are “food-insecure”, meaning they aren’t sure if they’ll be able to put sufficient food on the table day to day. On the other hand, despite being a state known for fit and healthy residents, one in four Colorado children are now considered overweight or obese. It’s all about what kind of food is purchased, Hughes said.

“Healthy food tends to be expensive. Some poor neighborhoods lack access to a supermarket and rely on corner convenience stores. And when parents are working two jobs they don’t have time to whip up a fresh, healthy meal,” she said.

In addition, poor parents are less able to afford athletic equipment or costs associated with organized sports, and they lack the spare time to supervise outdoor physical activity.

With state budgets tight, federal discretionary programs primed for cuts and an ideological, election-year debate raging about the appropriate role of government, Children’s Campaign personnel recognized the uphill battle.

“Return on investment (in children) is long horizon,” said vice president for health initiatives Cody Belzley. “You invest a dollar in Head Start today to make sure the child finishes high school and goes to college in 15 years. Lawmakers have to focus on balancing the budget this year.”

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