As Maine tries to keep pace with the rest of the nation on the road to prosperity, many of its children are being left behind. The annual Maine Kids Count book released this week offers details of how, in important areas, Maine children are worse off now than just a few years ago. Leaders of this state have a responsibility to use the information to help these kids before they are lost permanently.
The Kids Count book is a county-by-county profile of how Maine children fare in areas such as health, education, family environment and crime. Much of the news is good: Maine children have a low drop-out rate and high immunization rate, the suicide rate is down and the state’s fourth-graders rank among the nation’s best in reading and math. These statistics are part of a high quality of life here that make Maine such a special place.
But Maine also has problems, which can be seen most clearly in the rising number of children in need of health insurance. The percentage lacking insurance has climbed consistently for more than a decade and now includes nearly 12 percent of Maine children. The lack of insurance keeps children from getting proper preventive care, which in turn increases their chances of missing school for illnesses they might have otherwise avoided.
It is also expensive. Instead of simple care for common illnesses, parents without insurance for their children too often end up taking them to emergency rooms for sprains, colds or sore throats. More than 17,000 children visit the emergency room each year due to ear infections. So instead of paying $35 or $45 for a visit to a primary care provider, parents instead face a bill of $150 to $200 from the emergency room.
One serious illness — or, in some cases, even a not-so-serious one — is what stands between a family making the month’s rent or falling short. A promising expansion of Medicaid could help reduce some of this problem, if the state can persuade parents to sign up for it.
Other problems detailed in the Kids Count book include the state’s chronic inability up to 1996, when the data were gathered, to investigate all suspected cases of child abuse and a steady and disturbing increase in the arrest rate for teen-agers. The statistics don’t tell the whole story — they don’t say why things happen. But they do act as warnings about weaknesses in the social fabric of the state.
What Maine citizens do about these warnings will say a lot about how they regard children. Especially when these statistics point out shortcomings that have not yet become crises, Maine has an opportunity to take what is learned from this annual survey and take action to save a lot of pain and suffering among its children.