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Children Without 'Traditional' Support Seen Posing Challenge for Schools

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The increasing numbers of children who do not live in a "traditional'' two-parent family and who do not have any parent at home full time highlight the need for institutions such as schools to rethink their missions, according to a new analysis of census data.

The report, which analyzes data from the 1980 and 1990 censuses, was prepared by the Population Reference Bureau for the Center for the Study of Social Policy. Both are nonprofit research organizations based in Washington.

The report offers national and state-by-state data on child population, family composition, parents' employment, family income, children's schooling, and immigration.

Besides portraying "the many new realities of family life,'' said Tom Joe, the director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy, the data "alert us to the need to take a fresh look at how institutions function for kids and families.''

Children on Their Own

According to the report, only 26 percent of the nation's children lived in a two-parent family with a breadwinner and a homemaker in 1990.

For the first time in American history, the report says, married couples with children at home were no longer "the largest single block of American households'' that year. Instead, such families were outnumbered by married couples who were either childless or whose children did not live at home and by "nonfamily'' households.

The report also shows that, for the first time in 1990, the majority of women with children under age 6--more than 60 percent--were in the workforce, and that 64 percent of all children living with one or two parents did not have any parent at home full time.

"The huge proportion of kids-- whether living with one or two parents--who are left alone holds a dramatic challenge to our institutions, primarily education,'' Mr. Joe said.

Besides highlighting the rise in the numbers of children living in single-parent families, the report also says a greater share of children are living in households not headed by any parent or in "subfamilies'' in which a child lives with a parent in a relative's house.

It also details the increasingly diverse ethnic and racial composition of the child population and the increased numbers of children in "linguistically isolated'' households in which English is not the first language for family members age 14 and older. The report shows that 20 percent of school-age children speak a language other than English at home in five states--Arizona, California, New Mexico, New York, and Texas.

The report also shows how differences in the growth of the child population across states has influenced school enrollment. Increases in child population triggered enrollment increases of more than 20 percent in seven states during the 1980's, while declines in the child population fueled enrollment drops in 17 states.

While the number of children under age 6 grew by 12.5 percent between 1980 and 1990, the report shows, children became a smaller share of the overall population.

Martha Farnsworth Riche, the director of policy studies for the Population Reference Bureau, noted that, while communities with higher school enrollments will have a "natural constituency'' for children, those with lower numbers "are going to have to really make an effort to sell investment in schools.''

A Difficult Consensus

Differences in the rate of school dropouts by state and region are also noted in the study, which shows that dropping out was more common in 1990 in the South and West and less common in Farm Belt states.

In all, it notes, 1.6 million, or 11 percent, of 16- to 19-year-olds were not enrolled in school and were not high school graduates in 1990.

The study also charts differences in income growth among different types of families and states and shows that income differences among states have widened for both married couples with children and single-parent families.

The data--particularly on family composition and parental employment--should spur schools to rethink their role in fulfilling functions that they "could have assumed up to now the family was taking care of,'' Mr. Joe said. But he also stressed the need for new approaches to serving children and families on the part of government, the private sector, and community institutions.

Ms. Riche speculated, however, that it may be harder to forge a consensus on children's issues because the data show states have become "more unlike one another'' in the environments they offer for children.

Wide variation among states in terms of their percentages of children, school-enrollment patterns, and ethnic and racial composition suggest that "advocates for children are going to have to take different state and community contexts into account in a way they have never had to do before,'' she said.

Copies of the report, "The Challenge of Change: What the 1990 Census Tells Us About Children,'' are available for $10 each from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, 1250 Eye St., N.W., Suite 503, Washington, D.C. 20005.

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