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updated 6/2/2004 3:52:03 PM ET 2004-06-02T19:52:03

West Virginia has the largest percentage of idle, disconnected teenagers and young adults of any state, with growing numbers lacking either a job or education beyond high school, a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation concludes.

According to the 2004 Kids Count study being released Thursday, West Virginia fared better in six of the 10 categories that measured children's well-being between 1996 and 2001. Still, it ranked 42nd overall and dead-last in two categories that examine a child's transition to adulthood.

In West Virginia, 21 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds _ about 33,000 people _ are considered disconnected, meaning they are not working and not in school, and have no education beyond high school. West Virginia shares that last-place ranking with Louisiana.

Kids Count also ranked West Virginia last in the percentage of idle teenagers, meaning those between 16 and 19 who are not attending school and not working. About 14 percent fall into that group and are considered at risk of failing to become productive adults _ an 8 percent increase between 1996 and 2001.

The state's high school dropout rate also inched up, from 9 percent in 1996 to 10 percent in 2001.

Margie Hale, executive director of the West Virginia Kids Count Fund, said the number of idle young people "clearly is a piece of the overall economic situation of the state." But it may also reflect a historic lack of pre-kindergarten education for children, which research has shown to affect the rate of high school completion, test scores and eventual income levels.

"All those good things are related to having good early education, and this is a big thing we're working on in West Virginia," Hale said Wednesday.

The state has a long-term plan to offer a voluntary, statewide pre-K program for 4-year-olds.

"This is a tremendous step forward for West Virginia," Hale said, "and over time, I think we will see a reduction in these things, where we have fewer dropouts, fewer kids in trouble in the law and fewer idle adults."

The Kids Count report does have good news for West Virginia, which showed double-digit improvement in several categories.

The death rate for children ages 1 to 14 dropped 32 percent between 1996 and 2001, while the violent death rate for 15- to 19-year-olds fell 14 percent.

The percentage of children living in poverty dropped 27 percent, and the number of children whose parents lack a full-time, year-round job fell 15 percent.

The teen birth rate plummeted 18 percent, and the infant mortality rate dropped 3 percent.

Hale said those improvements show that primary care clinics for low-income families, family planning information and other state and federal investments in health care are paying off.

"We can expect all these numbers to continue to go down because kids are getting regular health care," she said.

"There's been some research that shows most people think things are getting worse for children," Hale said. "When people just hear bad news, they throw up their hands and say, 'I can't get involved in this. This is too big for me.' But in fact, what we are doing is making a difference."

___

On the Net:

West Virginia Kids Count: www.wvkidscountfund.org

Annie E. Casey Foundation: http://www.aecf.org

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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