Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Black Ohio kids still struggle

Report finds health, education, opportunity deficits

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

African-American children in Ohio are doing better than they were 10 years ago, but they still suffer from more health problems, and have fewer economic opportunities and lower academic achievement than other children.

That's the conclusion of a new Children's Defense Fund report that measures things from infant mortality rates to proficiency test scores.

The report, to be released today, found that black children in Cincinnati and the state's other big cities showed improvement but fared worse overall than those living elsewhere in the state.

The problems are more severe in the cities because poverty and African-American populations are more concentrated in urban areas, the authors of the report said.

"We've got a lot of work to do when it comes to African-American children," said Eileen Cooper Reed, director of the Children's Defense Fund in Ohio, a not-for-profit advocacy group. "There's some things to be happy about, but I can't applaud too loudly."

Reed said some of the improvements have been modest, while others have been more dramatic. But in every category, she said, black children still lag too far behind other children:

• Infant mortality rates for black children during the past 10 years fell from 16.4 deaths per 1,000 live births to 16.1 deaths. The state average for all other children is 6.1. In Cincinnati, the rate is 20.2 deaths of black children per 1,000 live births and 9.9 for all other children.

• Twenty-one percent of all births to black women involved teen mothers last year, compared to 26 percent 10 years ago. The teen birth rate for all other women is 9.6 percent. In Cincinnati, the numbers are 25 percent for African-Americans and 9 percent for all other women.

• Nearly 30 percent of black students passed Ohio's Ninth Grade Proficiency Test last year, compared to 15 percent 10 years ago. In Cincinnati, 33 percent passed the test. The state standard is 75 percent.

Reed said a booming economy through most of the 1990s is the main reason the numbers improved during the past decade.

Like most families, she said, black families benefited from better times and were able to provide better living conditions and care to their children. And if problems arose, social service agencies were able to step in to help.

Reed and others worry that government budget cuts and the economic downturn of the past two years have begun to erode some of the gains. They say recent cuts to Head Start programs, which provide education and day care to working families, are especially troubling.

"When you start trimming Head Start, that's going to have an impact down the road," said Rochelle Mortin, vice president for education and youth development at the Urban League in Cincinnati. "The early years are the crucial years."

Health care officials say they are disappointed but not surprised by the report's findings. Infant mortality has been an issue in Cincinnati for several years, especially for African-Americans.

The mortality rate in Cincinnati was third highest among the nine large cities included in the report.

"The bottom line is that while some improvement has been seen, the health disparities are still very much apparent and unacceptable," said Cincinnati Health Commissioner Malcolm Adcock.

Several agencies and programs now are trying to attack the problem by improving nutrition for mothers and children, making prenatal care more widely available and educating parents about the need for regular medical checkups for their children.

At the Crossroads Health Center in Over-the-Rhine, doctors and nurses have found that many poor African-Americans don't get health care because they don't think they can afford it.

"Poverty is a very big factor in this," said Leroy Greenidge, the practice manager at Crossroads, a private, not-for-profit clinic. "The perception is you have to have money to get things done."

But even with community outreach efforts, changing attitudes can be an uphill battle. Brook Gumm, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Crossroads, said poor people - regardless of race - simply don't make health care a priority.

"Parents have other, major, high-priority needs," Gumm said. "When you're concerned about getting locked out of your apartment or keeping your job, you really aren't concerned with your child's checkups."

The report found the numbers for education showed more improvement than the numbers for health, but those also lagged behind.

Cincinnati Public Schools officials say they have made improving test scores a priority and are trying to narrow the "achievement gap" between black and white students. "It is definitely a situation we're working on," said Michael O'Laughlin, the schools' director of curriculum.

Reed said the report's findings suggest much more work is needed.

"Black children need what every child needs," Reed said. "They need adults who believe they are responsible for all the children in the community. These are only problems because adults refuse to solve them."


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