A sharp drop in the number of children dying from auto accidents, homicides, cancer and other causes has boosted Minnesota to No. 1 nationally in the annual Kids Count ranking of states for child well-being.

While Minnesota always ranked near the top for education and the economic stability of its families, it languished in past reports because of its health indicators, including its child death rate and the share of teens abusing alcohol or drugs.

Both improved in 2013, the year cited in the most recent report, which was released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Minnesota recorded 258 deaths among residents aged 1 to 19 that year — the lowest total in at least two decades — and said just 5 percent of teens aged 13 to 17 abused drugs that year, a decline from 9 percent five years earlier.

"Most child and teen deaths are accidents, whether … car accidents or just accidents while a child is playing or out and about," said Stephanie Hogenson, research and policy director for Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota, which helps compile the report. "So safety measures around wearing seat belts and driver's education and around being safe in the community can improve that outcome. … Minnesota does a fairly good job with those efforts."

Minnesota ranked No. 5 in last year's Kids Count report and has typically ranked in the top 10.

Gov. Mark Dayton and leaders from the Children's Defense Fund, a national advocacy organization, planned to laud Minnesota's progress at an event Tuesday morning, but also chose the Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis as their location, to highlight the disparities that leave American Indians and other minority children more likely to suffer poverty and chronic disease.

In some ways, Minnesota's top ranking reflected setbacks in other states. Minnesota's child poverty rate rose from 11 percent in 2008 to 14 percent in 2013 — despite the state's emergence from an economic recession.

But the national child poverty rate increased even more, from 18 percent to 22 percent, in that period.

"Low-income families have not seen the recovery from the recession that high-income families have," Hogenson said.

Nationally, the share of children living in high-poverty neighborhoods is twice as high as it is in Minnesota, the report found. That's significant because studies show that even children from higher-income families suffer when living in disadvantaged neighborhoods, due to lack of access to safe parks and schools, healthy food and health care.

Safer, more responsible?

Minnesota's improving child death rate is based on a relatively small number of cases, meaning that the progress in 2013 could just be a statistical blip. Provisional data for 2014 from the Minnesota Department of Health show a slight uptick in deaths, to 280.

But that's still a sharp decline from five years ago, when that number was above 300, and 15 years ago, when the total exceeded 400. And an examination of Minnesota's 2013 child deaths by cause shows historically low totals in several categories, including homicides (12) and unintentional injuries (81).

The decline in accidental deaths and drug abuse is also consistent with a theme of more responsible behavior among Minnesota teens; the Kids Count report also showed a decline in the teen birthrate, from 26 births per 100,000 teens in 2008 to a rate of 17 in 2013.

Hogenson said a top ranking shouldn't make Minnesota complacent. It has one of the lowest rates of fourth-graders who lack reading proficiency — but the state's rate is still an alarming 59 percent.

"We have a low bar in this country," she said.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744