US children near records for well-being

Child poverty, teen births, and violence are all down, contrary to rhetoric from both parties.

Children are gaining ground in America.

Helped by a booming economy, and by efforts of government and the private sector, record or near-record lows are being recorded in everything from the teen birthrate, to violence against children, to a poverty rate that - while still high by Western standards - is in retreat.

This reversal of fortunes is a fairly new trend, and hasn't stopped either Democrats or Republicans from registering deep concern about children's welfare. Both parties' national conventions have emphasized recent school shootings, ho-hum reading and math scores, and the nearly 1 in 5 children living in poverty - although the Democrats have also highlighted those improvements that occurred under President Clinton's watch.

But while these overall messages seem to imply that America's youths are heading over a cliff, in fact, just the opposite is happening.

"One of the striking things is how many of these indicators are 'best evers,' " says Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Even in improved areas, however, much remains to be done. Some challenges, like scholastic achievement and children's access to health insurance, haven't improved at all. And in a few areas, such as drug and alcohol abuse, kids are even worse off than when President Clinton took office in 1992 - the point after which several of these indicators began to improve. Still, experts are encouraged by the following trends:

*Poverty. Since 1993, the child-poverty rate has dropped by 17 percent, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, at Columbia University in New York. This reversed a 15-year trend during which child poverty had increased nearly 40 percent. Experts point to the longest economic expansion in history as the main force behind the improvement, but also say welfare reform has played a role. Even so, 18.7 percent of US children - that's 13 million young ones - still live in poverty.

*Teen births. Kids having kids perpetuates poverty, "and if you put it off, you're making a huge difference," says Barbara Blum, at Columbia's poverty center. Analysts are delighted that teen birthrates are the lowest ever recorded (in 60 years), and that births among black girls are down nearly a third since 1991. Yet the United States still has the highest teen birthrate of any industrialized nation.

*Child deaths. Infant, child, and adolescent mortality have been declining for at least two decades, and are at historic lows. Among teenagers, motor-vehicle deaths have dropped by 36 percent over the past 20 years, while death by firearms has increased by nearly 28 percent, according to a July government report, "America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2000."

*Juvenile crime. Whether kids are victims or perpetrators of serious violent crime, both categories have been steadily falling since 1993.

"Those are all very positive findings," says Dr. Alexander. But even these indicators "are not as good as they ought to be. I don't think we should be satisfied that 18 percent of our children, or 40 percent of black kids, are growing up in poverty."

He's particularly concerned about the indicators that are going in the wrong direction, such as substance abuse. Among 12th-graders, nearly 31 percent reported having five or more alcoholic drinks in a row in the past two weeks, in a 1999 survey. That's down slightly after six years of growth, but it is still "incredible," says Alexander. In the same year, about 26 percent of high school seniors said they had used illicit drugs in the previous month. That also caps a trend that had been increasing for five years.

Behind the improved poverty numbers are forces similar to those that brought down the last big wave of poverty, which peaked in 1959. The strong economy of the 1960s, plus President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty" - including Head Start, Medicaid, and housing subsidies - moved millions of children to a better life.

Today, it's the millions of new jobs and vibrant economy, plus smaller-scale efforts by government and the private sector, that have moved 2 million children above the poverty line of $17,050 for a family of four.

Child advocates are also facing a new problem: the working poor. About two-thirds of children in poverty live in households where one or both parents work.

The issue is not joblessness, says Liz Barker of the Children's Action Alliance in Arizona. Her state is seeing one of its greatest economic periods ever, yet the child poverty rate has increased 5 percent since 1993.

"The issue is what kinds of jobs are available and what kind of support working parents get. The majority of new jobs are low-wage or part-time jobs, with no benefits," she says.

In the long term, education will be key to helping poor people move to higher-paying jobs. But mediocre test scores still show little progress.

In the short term, however, Ms. Barker says her state can follow the example of Illinois, whose child poverty rate has dropped 34 percent since 1993. That state got started early with welfare reform, but also continued some benefits for workers, passing its own earned income tax credit, to supplement the federal one - a great help to poor people.

"If they can do it, surely we can," says Barker.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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