Even as some indicators of child health in North Carolina improve, an annual report card details how the state’s children still struggle as a result of social issues.

By Rose Hoban

Even as North Carolina’s infant mortality rates improved and rates of childhood death dropped, the health of the state’s children is still poor, with high levels of obesity and childhood poverty, according to a report released Monday.

The annual report from Action for Children North Carolina and the North Carolina Institute of Medicine details how some traditional measures of childhood health improved over the past five years: immunization rates are up, tobacco use among teens is down and more kids have access to dental care.

But as North Carolina slowly climbs out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the report details how poverty still impedes the health of North Carolina’s children.

This year was the first time the groups included data on some of the social issues that contribute to good health – issues such as rates of childhood poverty and high school graduation.

The single best indicator of long term health is a mother’s educational level, according to Laila Bell, director of research and data at Action for Children. She said that’s what lead them to include high school graduation rates in the annual report for the first time.

Bell praised the state’s efforts in raising the graduation rate to a high of 80.4 percent last year.

“Graduating from high school is associated with improved individual quality of health, including increased access to health care, reduced rates of alcohol and drug abuse, and longer life spans” Bell said.

But she said gains in child health were offset by a persistently high poverty rate among North Carolina’s children.


“We know that the experience of poverty is associated with poor outcomes, obesity and higher mortality rates,” Bell said.

“Last year, a quarter of North Carolina’s children were in poverty. And those who are the most vulnerable to the effects of poverty are children under 5 years old.”

The rate of early childhood poverty was 30.3 percent in 2011, up from 23.6 percent in 2006.

Bell cited anti-poverty measures such as the earned income tax credit, a federal and state policy that reduces the amount of taxes paid by low-income families, especially those with children.

“Research shows the earned income tax credit helps lift families out of poverty,” Bell said. “Reducing poverty helps improve health outcomes for children.”

“These are issues for the General Assembly to keep in mind when they reconvene in the new year,” she said.

When asked if any one indicator stands out, Bell said it’s hard to untangle all of the factors that go into good health.

“In the past there’s been a body of thought that said if we improve one thing, you can improve health. But newer research is saying that it takes a multi-faceted approach to improve children’s health,” Bell said.

“So, poverty reduction, investing in high quality early education and campaigns to improve high school graduation rates, are as important as children’s access to immunization and dental care.”

Cover photo by Visit Greenwich, courtesy Flickr Creative Commons

Clarification: in the original version of this story Laila Bell is paraphrased as stating “The single best indicator of long term health is educational level.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...