- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A national report shows child well-being in Utah is on the rise five years after it began dropping from the ranking’s No. 3 spot.

Utah is ranked 11th overall in the country in the annual Kids Count Data Book released Tuesday, jumping three spots from its 14th place ranking last year.

The report, from the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, grades states on grades states on education, health care and poverty.

The data show Utah’s teenage birth rate and youth death rate have dropped 52 percent and 37 percent since 1990. But during that same time frame, the number of children in poverty increased 25 percent.

Those trends are playing out around the country, according to the foundation.

Nationally, more children are attending preschool and proficient in reading and math while death rates for children and teenagers have fallen. Officials point to early childhood initiatives, medical advances and widespread use of seat belts, car seats and bike helmets for those improvements.

The most recent data in Tuesday’s report is from 2012. Utah’s economic picture has brightened since then, with the jobless rate falling from 5.8 percent in June of 2012 to 3.5 percent last month.

Terry Haven, a deputy director with Voices for Utah Children, said because of an improving economy over the past two years, current conditions for poverty and economic well-being may be a little better than outlined in the report.

“Part of it is to wait and see if we’re creating jobs that pay more than minimum wage, because working minimum wage will not get you out of poverty,” Haven said.

Haven said the new report presents a mixed-bag of improvements and declines, but Utah’s overall improvements after falling for years is a good sign.

“Our numbers are not as big as some of the other states,” she said. “It’s not as daunting. We can make a difference.”

Utah leaders are working to collect data on children living in those circumstances and have formed advisory panels that are coming up with an “all-encompassing umbrella structure” to help families, she said.

One commission is in the process of mapping out five and 10-year plans with goals and benchmarks for the state.

The plans include initiatives such as helping parents with work training, education, childcare and transportation. For children, the initiatives aim to bolster health care coverage and preschool for at-risk kids.

Haven said one of the biggest things Utah could do to help with poverty would be to expand Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Without expansion, “it means that some of our parents are not insured and they’re not getting the medical care they need, putting them at risk, which is not good for kids,” she said.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, has proposed an alternative expansion plan to use a chunk of federal money to help people purchase private insurance rather than enroll them in the government program.

He’s still working to get federal approval of his idea, and then has to sell it to the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature.

Beyond Medicaid, Haven said Utah could improve child poverty and well-being by spending more on preschool programs, setting a higher state minimum wage than the federally mandated $7.25 an hour, and by adopting a state version of the federal earned income tax credit, providing tax refunds for the working poor.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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