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Nation Found Losing Ground on Measures of Child Well-Being

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Shifts in the economy, changes in "the routines and realities'' of family life, and the failure of institutions to respond to those realities have severely hampered "the capacity of typical families to raise their children well,'' a report tracking children's condition in the 1980's contends.

In its third annual report ranking states' progress in improving child well-being, Kids Count, a joint project of the Center for the Study of Social Policy and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, concludes that the nation slipped behind or stood still on seven of the nine measures studied.

The report, which was scheduled to be released this week, is based on a wide range of federal and state data analyzed by the Population Reference Bureau.

Indicators that worsened during the 1980's, according to the study, included child poverty, births to unmarried teenagers, numbers of children living in single-parent homes, and percentage of low-birthweight babies. More youths were also required by juvenile courts to spend "formative years'' away from their families, and the likelihood of a teenager's death as a result of an accident, suicide, or murder rose.

While 28 states made progress in increasing the share of 9th graders who graduate from high school within four years, the national rate of about 70 percent remained stable, the study found. And while the U.S. infant-mortality rate improved nationwide and in all states, it found, an African-American baby was twice as likely as a white baby to die in the first year of life.

One of the report's few positive findings was that the death rate for children ages 1 to 14 fell.

States Ranked

Based on states' overall performance on all measures, the report ranks North Dakota first and Mississippi last. Among its specific findings:

  • Alaska, Maine, and Minnesota had the fewest low-birthweight babies.
  • New Hampshire fared best in reducing the number of children in poverty, while Louisiana ranked last.
  • Alabama had the highest share of children in single-parent families--32.6 percent. In North Dakota, which ranked best on that measure, the share of children in single-parent homes still rose, from 9.7 percent during the 1980-1984 period to 12.4 percent in the period from 1987 to 1991.
  • Minnesota had the highest high-school-graduation rate in 1989--89.3 percent--while Florida, with 56.5 percent, and the District of Columbia, with 55.3 percent, had the lowest rates.

While some states with poor rankings on certain measures still showed improvement over time, the report notes that in 33 states where 82 percent of the nation's children live, children fared worse on more than half of the nine indicators.

"This constitutes a national pattern of child neglect,'' said Judith Weitz, the Kids Count coordinator for the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

"Family values have not changed that much,'' she said. "But the circumstances in which families are trying to make it have changed a great deal.''

In a foreword to the report, Douglas W. Nelson, the executive director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said, "Families today have fewer resources to provide for their children, less time to devote to their nurturing, fewer informal supports, and more anxiety about their children's futures.''

Between 1979 and 1990, the report says, the real median income of families with children fell by 5 percent. The average income for those in the lowest bracket fell by 12.6 percent, to $9,190. Children were the poorest group, it says, with one in five, or 12.7 million, living in poverty in 1990.

It also notes that the share of children with mothers in the workforce rose from 39 percent in 1970 to 61 percent in 1990, and that one in five children--almost 13 million--live in a single-parent home, more than twice the share 20 years ago.

Another "powerful barometer of family stress,'' said Ms. Weitz, is the finding that growing numbers of children beset by family problems such as drug abuse, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, and poverty are not living in a household headed by a parent.

The report says that about 10 percent of children under 18 live with other relatives, neighbors, friends, or in institutions.

These data have implications for educators, Ms. Weitz said, noting that, "if we're serious about education reform, we have to also deal with other risks children experience, because in the end it will affect the performance of students.''

Improving the conditions for rearing children, Mr. Nelson argued, will require a review and reform of wage, tax, welfare, and unemployment policies; day-care systems; work-site practices; and health care. He also called for more community-based family-support services and "positive youth-development opportunities'' to complement parents' role.

Copies of the 1992 "Kids Count Data Book'' are available for $12.50 each from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, 1250 I St., N.W., Suite 503, Washington, D.C. 20005.

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