By CAITY COYNE

HD Media

CHARLESTON - While West Virginia's children are faring better in two categories this year - health and family and community - the state's overall ranking of child well-being dropped this year, from 40th last year to 43rd, according to the 2019 Kids Count Data Book, released today.

The national data book, released by the Anne E. Casey Foundation, uses 16 factors spread across health, family and community, economics and education to determine the well-being of children in each state.

The state's rankings for economic well-being and education dropped this year, from 47th to 48th and 39th to 43rd, respectively, which wasn't a surprise for Tricia Kingery, executive director of West Virginia Kids Count.

"We know, the environment here, it's having an effect on our children. We can see the effects of economic downturns, and the effects of the opioid epidemic. Now, we have to figure out what that means for our children, moving forward," Kingery said.

This year's report also collected county-level data for all the national categories, as well as 13 factors listed as emerging well-being indicators, specifically tailored to trends and issues in West Virginia.

Per the report, 26% of West Virginia's kids are living in poverty. McDowell County held the highest percentage of impoverished children, with 54% - more than double the state's rate - living below the poverty line. Other coalfield counties also rounded out the bottom of that ranking, with Mingo (37% of children living in poverty), Boone (39%) and Lincoln (39%). Putnam County, with 11%, had the least amount of children below the poverty line.

Those same coalfield counties also had the highest rate of teen births, with McDowell at 55th, holding a rate of 73.8 per 100,000. At the state level, however, teen births are down dramatically, with 27 per 100,000 recorded in the 2019 data book and 45 per 100,000 recorded in 2010.

The rate of child and teen deaths was highest in Calhoun County, with nearly 105 deaths per 100,000.

Overall at the state level, the state ranked 31st for health as compared to last year's 35th ranking. There are fewer teens abusing alcohol and drugs, and fewer child and teen deaths.

Also, only 3% of children in the state live without health insurance, one of the lowest counts in the nation and an effect of the efforts of programs like the Children's Health Insurance Program, which has pushed for child enrollment for the last two decades, Kingery said.

The emerging well-being indicators included factors like children in foster care, children living in homes with connection to central fluoridation water and children who are homeless, among several others.

Kingery said these factors were meant to draw attention to potential rising trends for child well-being in the state, based specifically on issues in West Virginia.

She was also clear that data collection at the county level was difficult - some places had too small of sample sizes for accurate counts, and others did not collect the data the agency was looking to track, leading to disclaimers on the percentages and rates in some areas.

Clay County held the highest percentage of homeless children, with 21% living without a home, while Marion has the lowest, with .3%.

Clay County's rate was nearly double that of Wirt County, which ranked 54th in the state with nearly 12% of its children living in homelessness. Many of the emerging well-being indicators can be attributed to the effects of the opioid epidemic, Kingery said. It's been well documented how the epidemic has contributed to more children in foster care, or being raised by "grandfamilies," both of which are factors tracked county by county.

The coalfield counties, once again, held the highest rates of children being raised in kinship care or by grandparents, led by McDowell County, with 13% of its children in those living situations. It's followed by Logan, Lincoln and Boone, all of which recorded a little over 9%.

Kingery said that under-counts at the Census, sometimes exacerbated by poverty, can affect how data is used and recorded for studies like the State Data Book.

If there are not accurate counts of issues, then there is a risk that policy being developed will not accurately address rising problems in the state, Kingery said.

While this is the first year the organization has collected such a wide set of county-level data, she hopes that, as the years progress, the data collection will only improve as more community partners and agencies assist in tracking and reporting well-being factors for the state's children.

Ultimately, the target audience for the KIDS COUNT Data Book - and specifically the state data book - is West Virginia lawmakers, Kingery said. She hopes they'll see the numbers and use them to improve things in the state, not just focus on the bad or negative rankings for their own personal infighting.

"We can talk all day about the negative statistics, about how West Virginia ranks last in this or that, but that weighs people down. People who love this state, people like me who want their daughters to grow up and want to stay here, we need to have hope," Kingery said. "We need to acknowledge the bad - yes, we can't ignore it - but we need to hope and trust that our policymakers will use it to make improvements here, to do the work that needs to be done."

Caity Coyne is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach Caity Coyne at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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