When it comes to health studies, Southern states often scrape the bottom of the national barrel.
That tendency held up in a comprehensive children's wellness study in which Mississippi took last place and other Southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and South Carolina, rounded out the bottom 10.
Tennessee officials, however, touted the state's highest-ever overall ranking -- 39th.
"We celebrate Tennessee's best-ever ranking and first above the 40s," said Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.
Released this week, the 2011 Kids Count Data Book examines health indicators such as infant mortality, free and reduced-price school lunches and teen sexually transmitted disease rates to present a picture of children's wellness in every state. The report was issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based private charitable outfit.
Across the state line, Georgia, which ranked 42nd overall, lagged the national average on several key indicators, including low-birth-weight babies, single-parent homes and infant mortality.
Tennessee's highest statistical showing was a tie for ninth place with 12 other states for the lowest percentage of teens without high school diplomas. The state also saw decreases in its infant mortality rate, number of child abuse cases and teen death rate.
But even the positive news leaves plenty of room for improvement.
Tennessee still ranks in the high 30s or low 40s for most categories, including infant mortality.
At 8.3 deaths per 1,000 live births, Tennessee's rate -- which placed it at No. 44 -- dropped by 9 percent over the last decade, but the rate still lags behind most states.
Chattanooga's Leadership Group coordinates local agencies to reduce infant mortality. Several members said it's difficult to pinpoint one specific issue that's kept Tennessee's rates fairly high.
Still, educational options exist, including an umbrella program called Increasing the Rate of Infant Survival run through the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department. The program hosts classes for expectant mothers on flu vaccine, better diet, car seat safety and proper breast-feeding.
TOP FIVE STATES
1: New Hampshire
5: New Jersey
BOTTOM FIVE STATES
46: New Mexico
"It's a lot of different topics and it speaks to the complexity of the infant mortality," said Christina Featherstone, who coordinates the program and serves as the health department's liaison to Core Leadership Group. "We want young mothers to tell us the information they need."
Localized poverty numbers were perhaps most striking in the Kids Count report. Between 2008 and 2009 -- the years in which the United States slogged through an economic recession -- the number of Hamilton County children living in poverty increased from 14,911 to 18,098, or 24.9 percent of all children. Nationally, the child poverty rate is 20 percent.
The study defines poverty as $21,756 or less annually for a family of four.
In cooperation with Erlanger Health System, the Southside and Dodson Avenue Community Health Centers work to curb poverty's health consequences.
Tommie Patillo, a board member for the centers, said poverty's an important issue, but outreach about health issues is bigger.
Patillo cited a young man with high blood pressure and low calcium who came to the centers for treatment. He would never have done so "if his wife hadn't made him," Patillo said.
"If you walk into the community, you'll see a lot of people sitting on their porch," Patillo said. "You walk up, tell them who you are, you sit down and you listen to them. Turns out, a lot of them have never heard of the health centers. You tell them what it is, and they'll start coming."
Social policy leaders often attribute poverty to increases in teen pregnancy, but that's not the case at the local level, the Kids Count report states.
Between 2004 and 2008, the number of teen pregnancies in Hamilton County dropped by nearly one-third -- from 241 total teen pregnancies to 162.