AIKEN - South Carolina is inching its way off the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the well-being of the state's children.
But despite its best-ever ranking, the Palmetto State still places 42nd out of 50 states, according to the latest Kids Count report.
While South Carolina made some improvement, children who live in Georgia appear to be worse off than they were 10 years ago.
Georgia slid from 42nd place last year to 44th in this year's report.
The annual study published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable group, measures state-by-state statistics of a number of issues affecting children, such as poverty, graduation and mortality rates.
South Carolina improved in all but three categories from 1990 to 1998, but the accomplishments were overshadowed by the fact that the state is still near the bottom. Last year, it ranked 43rd. This year, it came in just ahead of Tennessee, Georgia, Arizona, Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi.
"This is the annual reminder that we're not playing it smart ... and looking out for our kids," said Baron Homes, director of South Carolina Kids Count. "We've never been anywhere near getting out of the 40s."
Georgia fared better than it had previously in the areas of infant mortality, the rate of deaths among children, births to teens and teen deaths. But the number of Georgia children living in poverty grew by 10 percent since 1990 and remained higher than the national average.
"We can see clearly that the economic boom of the 1990s did not reach the children of many families," said Ann Mintz, policy director of Georgians for Children. "We can only see that getting worse as we enter into an era in which we have an economic slowdown."
Some of the report's findings show:
In 1998, 23 percent of Georgia's children, or 470,000 children, lived at or below the federal poverty line, which was then about $16,000 for a family of four. The national average has remained constant at 20 percent since 1990.
The percentage of South Carolina children in poverty rose from 21 percent in 1989 to 23 percent in 1997, landing South Carolina in the 37th spot. More than 20 percent of the state's children are raised by poor families.
In Georgia, 9 percent of babies were born underweight in 1998, and nine out of every 1,000 infants died that year.
In 1990, nearly 9 percent of all South Carolina babies born weighed less than 5 1/2 pounds, making them susceptible to sickness and birth defects. By 1998, the number had climbed to nearly 10 percent. And for every 1,000 babies born, 10 of them died before their second birthday.
To break out of the bottom 10, Mr. Homes said, South Carolina must keep three infants from dying in each of the state's 46 counties. And preventing 186 deaths - or four deaths per county - would move the state into 36th place.
"The first key is making up our minds that we're going to try," Mr. Homes said. He wants the same commitment state officials showed in the early 1990s when they pushed hard for child immunizations. During that time, the rate of children getting inoculated against diseases soared to 90 percent, one of the nation's best.
What bothers Mr. Homes is that most child-related deaths, or six out of 10, are preventable. Among them, traffic fatalities are the greatest killer of kids, he said.
Staff Writer Vicky Eckenrode contributed to this article.
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