More than one in five of the youngest of Maine’s children live in poverty, according to a comprehensive study of child welfare called “Maine Kids Count,” released March 29 at the Statehouse.

The rate of poverty for children ages 0-5 increased from 19.4 percent to 21.8 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to the report. The national rate of poverty for that age group in 2008 was 21.2 percent.

“Way too many of our children live in poverty,” Dean Crocker, president of the Maine Children’s Alliance, which published the 16th annual report, said at a Statehouse news conference. “This does not even reflect last year, when we were in the worst of the recession.”

Nearly one sixth of all Maine children younger than 18 — 16.5 percent — live below the federal poverty level. The report said 38 percent of Maine children younger than age 18 are living in low-income families where family income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Food insecurity means a household lacks resources at times to buy food for an active, healthy life for all household members. Maine has a food insecurity rate of 13.7 percent, which is higher than the national rate of 12.2 percent. Maine is the only New England state to have a higher food insecurity rate than the national rate.

The percentage of Maine schoolchildren receiving subsidized school lunches rose from 39 percent in 2008-2009 to 43.1 percent in 2009-2010.

The report shows that children from families that are not low-income do better on standardized reading tests than children from low-income families. In 2008-2009, 74 percent of third-graders from non-low-income families met or exceeded the state standard in reading, while 53 percent of children from low-income families met or exceeded the standard.

In 2008-2009, 55 percent of 11th-graders from non-low-income families met or exceeded the state standard in reading, while only 33 percent of students from low-income families met or exceeded the standard.

Students from Morse Junior-Senior High School in Bath attended the news conference and sat at the large table in the governor’s Cabinet Room.

“Childhood poverty is strongly associated with many problems in later life, including low achievement in school, chronic health problems and arrests for criminal offenses,” said Crocker. “We use this information on an ongoing  basis with policymakers. Hopefully, we can make better decisions regarding poverty.”

He said the report illustrates the need for more funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and the food stamp program.

“This reinforces the importance of our focus on jobs and the economy,” said Gov. John Baldacci.

Baldacci said the state has reduced the number of children in state custody by 40 percent since 2002. “We think that’s a good thing,” he said. “The best social service program is a person with a job with benefits.”

First Lady Karen Baldacci, head of the Maine Children’s Cabinet since 2003, said schools in most parts of Maine now offer prekindergarten classes and most 4-year-olds can now go to school.

There were some positive improvements in the measures of well-being of Maine children. The percent of Maine children ages 0-17 injured in a motor-vehicle crash has declined almost 22 percent since 2004.

According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, between 2003 and 2007 the number of children with ready access to a primary medical caregiver rose to 65.5 percent from 57.6 percent.

The percentage of Maine children age 0-18 without health insurance held steady at 6 percent, well below the national average of 12 percent. Yet there are still 17,000 Maine children without health insurance. Of those, 9,000 are in low-income families that are eligible for MaineCare.

Teenagers report using drugs and alcohol less, but there has been a significant increase in those smoking cigarettes, from 14 percent to 18.1 percent, in the last two years. That is the first increase since the state began keeping statistics on teen smoking in 1997, when the rate of teen smoking was reported to be 39.2 percent.

“We know that people who start smoking, just like people who start drinking as teens, are more likely to adopt a lifetime habit,” said Attorney General Janet Mills, who also noted a troubling statistic — 9.2 percent of high school students reported using a prescription drug that was not prescribed for them in the last 30 days.

She said the high school dropout rate was slightly lower, the graduation rate was slightly higher and the arrest rate was slightly lower.

Between 1997 and 2008, the overall arrest rate of children ages 10 to 17 declined 44 percent from 88.2 arrests per 1,000 children to 49.3 arrests.

The rate of child and teen suicide, per 100,000 children ages 10 to 19, declined significantly from 1999 to 2004, from 7.4 to 4.6.

Births to single teenage mothers younger than 20 as a percentage of all live births in Maine increased slightly from 2006 to 2007, from 7 percent to 7.4 percent.

Maine Kids Count is part of the national Kids Count network, a state-by-state effort funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to track the status of children across the United States.

The 52-page “Maine Kids Count” book includes breakdowns for all 16 Maine counties. For a complete look at Maine Kids Count, visit the Maine Children’s Alliance Web site at mekids.org, or call 623-1868 Ext. 202, to request a copy.