Over the past 20 years, North Carolina has made tremendous progress in assuring that our children are healthy and thriving, from dramatic declines in infant and child death rates to impressive reductions in youth smoking and teen pregnancy, to a remarkable increase in the percentage of children with health insurance.
Overall, it is clear that North Carolina’s children are healthier now than they were 20 years ago. That is reason to celebrate.
Earlier this week, NC Child and the NC Institute of Medicine convened the state’s leading child health experts, advocates and policymakers for the 2015 Statewide Child Health Summit. We celebrated North Carolina’s progress and recognized the 20th anniversary of the N.C. Child Health Report Card, an important tool in monitoring key child health indicators.
We asked ourselves what needs to be done to continue improving the health of our state’s children. The answer lies in examining what has worked in the past.
Our progress is not the result of happenstance. It is the result of strategic, data-driven policymaking and public investment in evidence-based services and programs. A prime example is the dramatic increase in children’s health insurance coverage, largely the result of North Carolina’s decision to participate in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program by creating NC Health Choice. This decision resulted in children being insured and having access to annual well-child visits, immunizations, developmental screenings and medical services to ensure healthy development.
North Carolina will see the returns of this policy decision for years as our healthier children are better able to perform in school, graduate, gain employment and become contributing adults and citizens.
Across the board, there are many other examples of data-driven, evidence-based decisions leading to declines in youth smoking, teen pregnancy, lead poisoning and infant and child deaths, as well as improved access to dental care. The challenge now is to keep building on these successes, while also tackling serious problems, such as obesity, mental health and child maltreatment.
We also need to come to grips with two long-standing, underlying problems: child poverty and racial disparities in most indicators of child health. More than 25 percent of our children live in poverty, and research indicates they are more likely to experience developmental and other health problems. We are learning that all things are connected: If we can improve the economic condition of all our families we can mitigate the negative health outcomes that are symptomatic of child poverty.
We must also directly confront the racial and ethnic disparities that exist across health outcomes. The infant mortality rate for African-American babies is over double the rate for white babies. This disparity persists even when we control for other variables like educational attainment and income level. Addressing this issue demands a deep and honest look into structural and cultural inequities in our state that diminish opportunity for far too many of our children.
In reviewing our progress for children’s health over the past two decades, we can see that if North Carolinians set their minds, hearts and resources on a problem, we can overcome any obstacle. Our children are relying on us to remain dedicated to the goal of making North Carolina the best place to be a child and to raise a child. A collective commitment to data-driven policymaking and public investment in evidence-based programs will prove to be critical tools in achieving our goal.
Michelle Hughes is executive director
of NC Child.
By the letters
B in high school graduation: 82.5% graduating in 2012-13; 71.8% in 2008-09
D in percentage of children in poverty: 28% of children under age 5 in 2013; 26.7% in 2009
B in teen pregnancy: 16.6 pregnancies per 1,000 girls ages 15-17 in 2013; 30.1 in 2009
D in school nurse ratio: 1:1,177 in 2012-13; 1:1,207 in 2008-09
B in child fatalities: 56.5 deaths ages 0-17 per 100,000 in 2013; 65.4 in 2009
C in child abuse and neglect: 129,842 children investigated in 2013; 126,187 children in 2009
Read the report at ncchild.org.