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Pa. does worse in parent unemployment, teen pregnancy

| Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Increases in parental unemployment and teen pregnancy are making life more difficult for children in Pennsylvania, which is ranked 23rd in a national report on child well-being released Tuesday.

Pennsylvania's problems mirrored the rest of the country's in the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 20th annual KIDS COUNT Data Book. Parental unemployment is up 18 percent in Pennsylvania from 2000 and child pregnancy rates rose after years of decline.

The most recent economic numbers available are from 2007, meaning they caught the beginning of the recession that began in December of that year.

"This is most concerning because the data doesn't report anything from the height of the economic downturn," said Laura Beavers, who coordinates the KIDS COUNT data collection effort. "We know this is a big under-estimate of what's going on with kids and families today."

The foundation's affiliates collect data in every state and several territories. They have 10 core measures of child well-being, including infant, child and teen deaths, high school dropouts, and poverty rates, considered the most important indicator for children's long-term health and success.

Pennsylvania has ranked slightly above average over the past five years. Yesterday's report shows the state decreased its child and teen death rates, its number of high school dropouts, its number of children living in poverty and its number of children living in single-parent families in 2006-07.

The rise in parental unemployment and teen pregnancies were two notable setbacks, said Kathy Geller Myers, spokeswoman for the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, the Casey Foundation's Pennsylvania affiliate.

Parents' difficulty in finding steady, full-time work has increased steadily since 2000. The increase in teen pregnancies is more difficult to explain, child experts said.

Nationally, teen births are down from 2000; but from 2005 to 2006, the rate increased from 40 to 42 births per 1,000 girls ages 15-19. In Pennsylvania, that number went from 30 to 31, after 13 years of steady decline.

Researchers have not been able to pinpoint any one factor for the increase, and it is likely that there are several reasons, said Jim Kelly, associate professor of social work at Carlow University. They could include a declining fear of sexually transmitted diseases, decreased use of contraceptives or even a lack of concern about the risks of pregnancy, Kelly and Beavers said.

Core issues — including early learning, education, health care and economic development — are all integral parts of the budget debate in Harrisburg, where legislators are trying to close a $3.25 billion state deficit, said Ray Firth, director of policy initiatives at the University of Pittsburgh's Office of Child Development. Firth has criticized some attempts to slash the budget at the expense of children and education.

"We do know how to prevent the problems, but it takes an investment now to yield a return in later years," he said.

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