This editorial appeared in the Peninsula Clarion:
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A recently released report confirms that when it comes to kids, Alaska can do better.
Overall, Alaska ranks 35th in the nation in the 2006 Kids Count Data Book, an annual report designed to show how America's children are faring. It is sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization dedicated to helping build better futures for disadvantaged children in the United States.
The report uses 10 measures to track states' progress when it comes to the well-being of children: the percent of low birth-weight babies (Alaska ranks No. 1); the infant mortality rate (Alaska ranks 28); the child death rate (Alaska: 50); the teen death rate (Alaska: 50); the teen birth rate (Alaska: 24); the percent of teens who are high school dropouts (Alaska: 7); the percent of teens who are not attending school and not working (Alaska: 46); the percent of children living in families where no parent has full-time year-round employment (Alaska: 49); the percent of children in poverty (Alaska: 3); and the percent of children in single-family homes (Alaska: 25).
There likely are dozens of different ways to interpret those numbers, and some of the statistics should come as no surprise.
For example, that Alaska ranks at the bottom of the list when it comes to the number of children living in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment reflects the seasonal nature of many of the jobs in Alaska as well as the subsistence lifestyles of many Alaskans.
The state's great performance on its low percent of low birth-weight babies reflects the success of public health programs in not only teaching about the importance of prenatal care, but reaching those who need it.
That Alaska ranks as the worst in the nation when it comes to the child and teen death rates should shame all of us. While nationwide both those rates have fallen, the painful truth is most of those deaths are preventable.
"Too many young children die in automobile accidents because they are not wearing a seat belt. Nearly half of the children ages 1 to 4 who died in traffic crashes were not wearing a seat belt or other restraint," says the report, which examined 2003 data, the most recent year for which it was available.
"Accidents continue to account for at least three times as many teen deaths as any other source, including homicide," says the report. "Most of the lethal accidents are automobile accidents."
Alaska's harsh climate and vast coastline are not excuses for the state's poor performance in these categories. Neither is the passion many Alaskans and their children have for outdoor adventures.
Preventing many of those deaths is as simple as making sure everyone in a vehicle is properly restrained before putting a car in gear. As simple as making sure kids wear helmets and know the rules of the road when they bike. As simple as making sure everyone on a boat wears a personal floatation device. As simple as practicing what you preach to your teenage driver about obeying the rules of the road.
How well we protect our kids from preventable accidents surely is a valid measure of how much we really value them. Alaska can do better for its children and it should.