News that Vermont finished first among the states in the ranking of children’s health came with the caveat that Vermont ranks high because in some areas our children’s health is worsening more slowly than in other states.
On the whole the ranking from the United Health Foundation is good news, and it was welcomed by Gov. Peter Shumlin and Health Commissioner Harry Chen. There are many areas where Vermonters can be proud that they are doing well by their children. Some of the pluses include: low incidence of infectious disease; fewer low-birth-weight babies; high per-capita public spending on health; low rate of uninsured; availability of primary care doctors; high rates of high school graduation; and a low rate of violent crime.
Still, Vermont has not escaped the problem of obesity that has plagued the nation. Since 1995 the rate of obesity has risen 75 percent in the state. One quarter of all Vermonters are obese. It is cold comfort that this high rate, nevertheless, makes Vermont one of the least obese states.
The state’s children benefit from the active lifestyle that still prevails. Previous obesity rankings have shown that states where outdoor activity is common are the ones with the lowest obesity rates. These include Colorado, Utah and Vermont.
A recent news report showed that obesity has started to come down in some cities, suggesting that public awareness and a campaign for a more healthy lifestyle can have a positive effect, as they did in the campaign against smoking. Gradually, more and more people will realize that soda is a killer. It is empty calories that contribute nothing to one’s well-being. The push by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban the sale of large bottles of sugared soda in New York City met with much derision from those who believe people ought to be free to drink a quart of Mountain Dew for breakfast. But we owe it to our children to try to make them stop.
The health of our children reflects the investment Vermont has chosen to make in programs such as Dr. Dynasaur. Vermont spends more than other states for that program and others, such as Catamount Health and the Vermont Health Access Program. Good health, like good education, does not come for free. Nor can a lot of people pay for it. So the state of Vermont has stepped forward to say that the health of our children is a priority.
The low rate of low-birth-weight babies reflects the state’s commitment to prenatal care, which is often administered through the state’s parent-child centers. These investments are public expenditures, which are anathema in anti-government circles, but they yield a measurable public good. And Vermont, it turns out, measures up well.
It is no coincidence that the states that tend to place low in health rankings are the states that avoid high public spending on health care programs. These include mainly states in the South — Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana among them.
It is a reality that some states — by custom, history, culture and politics — choose not to spend as much money as other states do. The Southern states spend less on education as well as health care. New England and the states of the upper Midwest and the Northwest, with a history of activist government, spend more. The election map, dominated by a red bloc in the South and a blue bloc in the North, reflects this reality.
In states like Vermont, the anti-government argument is rebutted by the results of the states’ decisions to support fundamental needs such as education and health care. The counterargument suggests it is up to the individual to take care of himself, and if he fails to do so, he must bear the consequences. That the consequences include poor health for children seems to be a high cost to bear to prove an ideological point. In Vermont we prove the opposite point: It is possible to secure the health and well-being of our children and all benefit as a result.