RALEIGH — Since 2007, Bladen County children have experienced improvement in key health indicators, including insurance coverage, dental care, teen pregnancy, child deaths and even high school graduation rates. These gains are at odds with what’s expected during economic downturns when health outcomes typically worsen.
“Poverty causes increased financial and emotional strains on families that often result in poorer health outcomes for children,” said Laila A. Bell, director of research and data at N.C. Child. “These data show that public policy actions which promote evidence-based programs and support local communities can be powerful tools to safeguard our children’s health during tough economic times.”
N.C. Child’s 2013 Child Health County Data Card for Bladen County finds between 2007 and 2012:
— Medicaid enrollment increased by 5.7 percent and Health Choice enrollment increased by 10.3 percent, which is consistent with statewide data showing a 30 percent decline in uninsured children;
— Medicaid-eligible children who received dental care increased by 53.8 percent for children 1 to 5 and 8.4 percent for children 6 to 14;
— North Carolina’s teen pregnancy rate continued to improve, dropping 43 percent to 19.7 per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 17. The teen pregnancy rate was 22.6 per 1,000 girls in Bladen County;
— Statewide, child fatalities continued to decline, falling 22 percent to 58.6 per 100,000 children under age 18. Bladen County had six child deaths in 2012;
— The graduation rate improved by 29.5 percent.
“It’s no coincidence that Bladen County experienced a significant decline in its teen pregnancy rate and increase in its graduation rate over the past several years,” said Bell. “Both of these indicators have been targeted by well-funded state efforts. This improvement should give us hope that we can make progress on big problems when we’re willing to put resources behind data-driven solutions.”
While typically associated with academic achievement, the graduation rate is also a key health indicator. Education is associated with better earning potential and higher income which enables purchase of better housing in safer neighborhoods, healthier food, health insurance coverage and more timely medical care. Studies have linked high school dropout to higher rates of substance use, psychological, emotional, and behavioral problems.
N.C. Child’s findings for Bladen County were not all positive, however.
Key economic indicators in Bladen County have worsened as a result of the recession and subsequent budget cuts. Specifically, the unemployment rate in Bladen County increased from 6.2 percent to 12.4 percent from 2007 to 2012, and the median household income declined 8.6 percent to $32,766. In 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, 29.4 percent of children in Bladen County were living in households that struggled to meet their basic nutritional needs.
“Statewide, one in four children are growing up in poverty. Food insecurity is a very serious byproduct of poverty that’s making its presence felt in Bladen County,” stated Bell. “No child should ever go to bed hungry, but unfortunately, that’s what’s happening to children across the county.”
With the elimination of the state Earned Income Tax Credit and significant cuts to unemployment benefits, there is concern that many families could find their economic situation worsening during a slow economic recovery. What’s clear is that the impacts of public policy decisions are playing out in communities across the state.
“We know that parents and communities are working hard to grow healthy children, but they cannot do it alone.” said Bell. “Advocates, providers, community and business leaders, state and federal governments must collaborate to strengthen investments in prevention programs and promote focused public policies that promote child well-being.”