Study: Alaska becoming more caring place to live

Posted: Thursday, November 30, 2000

Alaska is growing more compassionate and is now ranked 10th nationally in that category - a jump from 22nd in 1988 - according to a new index developed by the charitable nonprofit United Way.

The state had the fifth largest increase in the United Way State of Caring Index, with improvement in 14 of 22 state-level indicators, according to United Way of Southeast Alaska executive director Marsha Riley.

All of the state's economic and financial health indicators improved during that decade, Riley said. Highlights are a decline in unemployment - from 9.3 percent to 5.8 percent - and an 11.1 percent increase in the median household income, compared to a 3.7 percent rise nationally.

The state as a whole fared well with other economic indicators, including a decrease in the percentage of the population living below the federal poverty level - from 11 percent to 9.4 percent; a 17.4 percent decrease in the gap between to top fifth and bottom fifth of income earners; and improvement in apartment rental affordability.

Riley cautioned, however, that statewide figures may not necessarily reflect what's going on regionally and that she and the local volunteer board have concerns for Southeast.

As an example, the Sitka youth suicide rate "is out of line with state numbers that appear under the health category in 'age-adjusted

injury-related death rate,'" which showed improvement statewide during the period, she said.

"Since taking his job in Sitka approximately a year-and-a-half ago, Sitka Police Chief Bill McLendon stated they have averaged one youth suicide a month. That's startling, and United Way of Southeast is working to partner with others to find immediate and long-term answers."

Alaska saw some improvement in the education category, with increases in the percentage of eighth-graders at or above proficiency level in math and in fourth-graders at or above proficiency level in reading. But the state also saw decreases in public school expenditure per pupil and teacher salaries, and a worsening of pupil-teacher ratios.

With respect to public safety, the state didn't fare well: Reported violent crimes increased by 25 percent during the decade measured.

"Many of our domestic violence shelters are filled to capacity with people in crisis, month after month," Riley said. "But the impact of domestic violence goes far beyond those who seek the safety of a shelter. Where do we fall in line with the national and state numbers? I'm not sure at this point. But it's important to find out and I see it as a major part of my job."

Riley said the index would help United Way move "beyond a narrow focus of a fund-raising organization, and to take a more active role as a community builder."

A plus of the index is its identification of areas of need, Riley said, which "allows me to go to national corporations and foundations to seek funds earmarked for specific areas of concern."

The national ratings, issued Wednesday, show the top three states to be Minnesota, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Trailing the rest of the country are Louisiana and Mississippi, with New Mexico last on the list.

United Way of America made its new yardstick for compassion public at a Washington, D.C., news conference.

"United Way understands that public and private decision-makers need a clear, consistent reminder of where we stand as a nation beyond dollars and cents," said United Way of America Chairman Dimon R. McFerson in a release. The index "is a benchmark of progress that tells us how our nation is doing and where it can do better."

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