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Child poverty increased in Mass., report shows

A growing percentage of Massachusetts children are living in poverty, with more than a quarter of youngsters in Suffolk County and nearly a third in Hampden County coming from families with incomes below the federal poverty line in 2012, according to a new report that concludes that where residents live significantly affects their health and their longevity.

Even as the economy has rebounded, the data show that children in poor households have not enjoyed a similar recovery. In 2007, before the recession hit, 13 percent of the state’s children were living in poverty. By 2012 that had grown to 15 percent, and the rates remain higher now than in 2007 in every county except Suffolk, which includes Boston.

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Nationally, the percentages jumped from 18 percent to 23 percent during that span, the report found.

Childhood poverty is one of the key indicators of later health problems, concludes the report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. It’s their fifth annual examination of data for nearly all counties in the United States.

The report includes analyses and mountains of data on more than a dozen factors that influence health, such as poverty, education levels, rates of smoking, and physical inactivity, and even commuting times to work.

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While Massachusetts fares well in some health indicators, such as having relatively low rates of teen births, and fewer residents who lack health insurance, the report shows that in many other critical areas, including the percentage of children living in poverty and those in single-parent households, the state lags behind the top-performing counties in the United States.

It found 30 percent of Massachusetts children living in single-parent households, and 19 percent of the state’s households reporting at least one severe housing problem, such as lack of a kitchen or plumbing facilities.

By comparison, the report found 20 percent of children living in single-parent households in counties that the researchers identified as the healthiest in the country, and just 9 percent of households in those counties reporting serious housing problems.

Even in areas where Massachusetts receives high marks nationally, the data show the numbers vary widely across the state, with teen birth rates more than five times higher in Hampden County in Western Massachusetts than they were in Hampshire and Norfolk counties. Hampden residents were the least fit in the state on several health measures, while Hampshire and Norfolk residents tended to be much healthier.

The researchers track teen birth rates because teenagers are typically not as likely as older women to get adequate prenatal care, jeopardizing their babies’ health.

Michelle Larkin, assistant vice president of program portfolios at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said many health risk factors are interconnected.

“We have kids having kids who have no income,” Larkin said. “Having young kids puts kids in jeopardy of not completing high school, and of graduating from college, and that puts them in a lower-income earning bracket.”

Education levels matter more now to health than in years past, with some recent studies showing that the life expectancy gap between the most and least educated Americans is growing. By age 25, Americans without a high school diploma can expect to die nine years sooner than college graduates, according to a recent report from Virginia Commonwealth University.

The nation’s poorest children are 12 times less likely to graduate from high school than those whose families are near median-income levels, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report.

Physicians and researchers who care for and study poor children said the report jibes with what they have been seeing and worrying about.

“Families with young children are working harder and harder, but are falling farther behind,” said Dr. Megan Sandel, an associate professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston Medical Center.

Sandel tracks the number of young children treated in the hospital’s emergency room who are hungry and dangerously thin. She said recent cuts to the federal program that helps the poor afford food are forcing many of the families she treats to choose among rent, food, and heat, even as many reports suggest the economy is improving.

“We see these play out on the bodies of our patients,” Sandel said.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report encourages community, business, government, and health leaders to pool dollars across counties for more cost-effective programs to battle childhood poverty and other problems. But Julie Wilson, a faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who specializes in family policy and poverty, said Massachusetts has historically resisted a countywide approach to solving community problems.

“Increasingly as we are watching poverty grow in the suburbs, a lot of the services for families are still in cities,” Wilson said. “In the western part of the state, you have a transportation problem. Think of how far you have to drive to go to a clinic or doctor, if you can even afford it, and about the cost of insurance and gas.”

Commuting long distances in itself can take a considerable health toll, and the new report found that among Massachusetts residents who drive alone to work, 40 percent commute more than 30 minutes a day. That compares with 15 percent of workers in other healthier regions of the country.

A 2012 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the farther people drive to work, the higher their blood pressure and their percentage of body fat. It also found that their levels of physical activity were lower.

Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.
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