Utah’s kids are ranked 6th in overall well-being — but rising rate of teen suicides is troubling to advocates

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Kindergartners at Midvale Elementary School, as seen in April. A new report suggests Utah children fared better in 2016 than in 2010 on key metrics involving health, education, family and community, and economic well-being.

Children in Utah generally fared better in 2016 than they did six years before, a major study reveals.

Fewer lived in poverty and more showed signs of succeeding in school, though some of their health indicators are lower than the national average.

Most of the 16 separate measures regarding the status of Utah children — including economic well-being, education milestones, health and aspects of family and community support — improved between 2010 and 2016, according to the latest Kids Count Data Book.

The yearly report, released last week by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation, is aimed at lifting conditions for the nation’s disadvantaged children.

The report ranked Utah sixth in the country for overall child well-being in 2016, the most recent year for which data are available. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Minnesota and Iowa had higher aggregate scores.

On the economic front, there were signs that Utah’s sustained recovery was having positive effects for some of its poorest families.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

The state saw a 31 percent decrease in the share of children living in poverty, lowering the total from 16 percent of all children in 2010 to 11 percent in 2016, compared with 19 percent for the U.S. as a whole.

Utah also saw improvements in measures of kids whose parents lacked secure employment and of those living in households burdened with high housing cost.

On the education front, more young children in Utah were in school, although the state consistently ranks behind many due to large numbers of kids ages 3 and 4 who do not attend preschool or early education.

Other key school proficiency scores for fourth-graders, eighth-graders and high school graduates all improved in Utah.

In terms of family and community support — where Utah ranked first in 2016 among all U.S. states — teen births declined as a share of all Utah births and metrics on children in families vulnerable to poverty all improved or remained on par with 2010 levels.

But several health indicators for children in Utah worsened over the six-year period in question, the latest Kids Count report reveals.

There was an increase in low birth weight babies as a share of all births in the state, ticking up from 7 percent in 2010 to 7.2 percent in 2016. More troubling, Utah saw a rise in its child and teen death rates per 100,000 in population between 2010 and 2016, which analysts attributed to an increase in the suicide rate among Utah teens.

Jessie Mandel, senior health policy analyst for Voices for Utah Children, said the nonprofit advocacy group sees a critical need for more school nurses and counselors along with other school-based services as suicide rates have risen in Utah and across the country.

"Kids need a place to go for care and support before a condition or a problem escalates,” said Mandel.

The group also lamented Utah’s relatively low ranking in terms of children living without health insurance, measured at 6 percent of the state’s kid population in 2016, well above the national rate of 4 percent.

While Utah has improved those coverage rates in recent years through initiatives under the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, according to Mandel, “we are still lagging behind the rest of the nation.”

While welcoming Utah’s results, officials in the state said they also highlighted worries that the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census may overlook large numbers of at-risk children, leaving them vulnerable to being left out of eligibility for the nearly $1 billion in federal funds distributed yearly to the state based on U.S. population counts.

Nearly 1 in 10 Utah kids are at risk of being undercounted in the upcoming census, according to the nonprofit group Voices for Utah Children, either because they are of color, reside in low-income households, have immigrant parents or live in rural areas or on reservations.

A lack of leadership at the U.S. Census Bureau, a first-ever digital focus on initial data gathering and the potential for reduced participation due to proposed citizenship questions all have advocates warning that as many as 1 million children under 5 could be missed in the national tally.

“If we don’t count children, we render their needs invisible and their futures uncertain,” said Patrick McCarthy, CEO and president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “A major census undercount will result in overcrowded classrooms, shuttered Head Start programs, understaffed hospital emergency rooms and more kids without health care.”

As a result, added Terry Haven, deputy director for Voices for Utah Children, "federally funded supports that have driven youth success are in jeopardy.”