Broadly speaking, American children are making gains in health and education.
Child-wellness indicators in four main areas – economic well-being, education, health, and family and community – reflected an overall increase in the well-being of America’s youths, as measured by the 2014 Kid’s Count Data Book report, released annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private charitable organization in Baltimore, Md. Of the 16 categories, 10 improved, five worsened, and one remained the same.
The report compared the most recent data (2010 to 2013) with data from 2005, the first year of the economic recession, which hit low-income families particularly hard.
Areas of improvement included the drop in teen births per 1,000 (from 40 to 29) and a decrease in the number of children without health insurance (from 10 percent to 7 percent). All four education trouble spots addressed in the study – children not attending preschool, fourth-graders not proficient in reading, fourth-graders not proficient in math, and high school students not graduating on time – dipped at least slightly, between 2 and 8 percent. All health issues improved as well, with fewer low-birth-weight babies, fewer child and teen deaths, and fewer teenagers abusing drugs and alcohol.
Many of these advances reflect how the attitudes toward child-health issues have changed, says Patrick McCarthy, president and chief executive officer of the foundation.
“We’ve had policies about seat belts, and car seats and helmets, so it changes how we think about protecting our children,” he says of reduced mortality, “and all of that is about policy choices and investment choices we make.” The teen birthrate, now low by historical standards, is another example. “Between 1990 and 2012, the teen birthrate was cut in half,” Mr.
McCarthy says. “We think that was a result of good policy choices, making reproductive health and birth control more available, as well as education.”
The main setbacks in wellness were seen in the economic well-being sector. The number of children living in poverty rose from 19 percent to 23 percent between 2005 and 2012, a total of 16.4 million children. Children whose parents lack secure employment – more than 23 million – increased from 27 percent to 31 percent. Overall, 28 million children were reported as living in households with a high housing-cost burden.
Curtis Skinner, a labor economist and director of family economic security at the National Center for Children in Poverty, sees the increase in poverty as closely tied to housing issues, as well as a dangerous indicator of future negative trends. “Across the country, in especially large cities, we’re seeing this enormous increase in housing costs, and a decline in affordable housing causes an increase ... of kids who are living in concentrated poverty,” Dr. Skinner says. “Typically these areas have worse schools and less recreational areas and places to play, [and] more unhealthy spaces with more contaminated environments.”
The extreme nature of these impoverished communities is also telling. “The increasing dearth of affordable housing means that people who are seeking affordable housing are pushed into concentrated neighborhoods where [it] is available,” Skinner adds. “Being poor is bad, but growing up in an area of concentrated poverty is especially bad for kids. In this bifurcated economy with high wage and low wage, we’re now in bifurcated living patterns as well, with more class-based segregation.”
Race plays into these statistics as well. For example, although it has improved in recent years, the national percentage of fourth-graders not proficient in reading is 66 percent overall. But lack of proficiency affects 83 percent of African-Americans and 81 percent of Hispanics. Many other topics present similar breakdowns.
“This is a structure of opportunity ... decidedly in favor of white … and wealthy people,” says Ryan Pfleger, a doctoral student researcher at the National Education Policy Center. “Some people have claimed that differences in genes, differences in culture, differences in effort cause [an] achievement gap. But the bigger explanation … is the difference in opportunity.”
Still, “there are multiple ways to decrease the gap,” Mr. Pfleger says, citing examples such as fighting student hunger, which interferes with learning, or pursuing studies measuring the independent effects of income, hunger, and health care on students.
“There are multiple ... ways that the research has shown that [change],” he says. “Is it one of these [initiatives]? It’s a combination.”