Child advocates in Tennessee and Georgia say a recent ranking of states based on child well-being may be painting a too-rosy picture.
The ranking is based on data collected before the economic recession unleashed a wave of unemployment and budget cuts, the advocates say.
"We've been hit with an economy that may bring these numbers back to where they were a few years ago," said Pat Willis, executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children, a public policy and advocacy organization. "I hope we don't let the economy push us to sort of wring our hands and feel like we can't do anything" to improve.
Tennessee achieved its best-ever state ranking in the annual Kids Count report, coming in at 41st, up from 46th last year, with improvements in areas including infant mortality and high school dropout rates.
Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, said she hopes the report will illustrate the progress made in Tennessee and "will help people realize how important it is to keep in place that essential foundation of services and supports that help children be healthy and succeed in school."
She noted that programs such as Coordinated School Health and school-based family resources centers are funded either with non-recurring budget funds or federal stimulus funding that is not guaranteed to continue.
The Peach State's ranking remained steady at 42nd in this year's Kids Count report. But some are worried about what the ranking will show a couple of years down the road, when the full impact of recent budget cuts in areas including education and human services will be reflected in the data.
"The impact of the large budget cuts we've had over the last couple of years raises the concern that, even though we've held steady, maybe we could be going backward (in future rankings)," said Clare Richie, senior policy analyst with the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
In Tennessee, according to Kids Count data, infant deaths per 1,000 live births declined 9 percent - from 9.1 in 2000 to 8.3 in 2007. The most recent data from the Tennessee Department of Health shows the rate was even lower in 2008, at 8.0 deaths per 1,000 live births.
One of the agencies that has led to significant improvements in the state's infant mortality rate - the Governor's Office of Children's Care Coordination - narrowly escaped losing half of its state funding this year, which was restored in the final budget.
A "groundswell of support" from community members sought to convince legislators of the program's value, said Rae Bond, chairwoman of Chattanooga's Core Leadership Group, which coordinates the efforts of local groups working on infant mortality.
"We've had some really exciting programs starting and we are making some significant progress here," she said.
Supportive government policy can make all the difference in changing wellness outcomes, Ms. O'Neal said.
Accidents are the leading cause of death for children, and Tennessee policies have focused on decreasing potential accidental deaths, including being the first state in nation to require child-restraint devices in vehicles to most recently passing a law banning text messaging while driving, she said.
Georgia had some strong areas of improvement, including high school dropout rates that have been cut in half between 2000 and 2007, declining from 16 percent to 8 percent.
But Taifa Butler, policy and communications director for the Georgia Family Connection Partnership, worries the number may start to reverse. Funding for school-based graduation coaches, who she said have been instrumental in keeping kids from dropping out, has decreased and many schools have opted to eliminate this position.
Georgia's statistics in five of the 10 Kids Count's indicators improved compared to 2000, but some of those long-term improvements - including the teen death rate and percentage of low birthweight births - have actually reversed somewhat in recent years.
For example, in the long-term, the teen birth rate has declined 13 percent, from 63 births per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19 in 2000, down to 55 births in 2007. But the teen birth rate has increased since 2005, when it reached 52.3, Ms. Butler said.