A Statistical Portrait of America’s Children
The following essay presents state and national trends in child well-being. All data is derived from The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s special July 2014 25th edition of the KIDS COUNT Data Book, a report that is prepared in collaboration with the Population Reference Bureau.
An important goal of the report is to identify deficiencies and raise awareness about how children are faring, so that appropriate policies and programs can be initiated that could lead to improvements in child well-being in the United States. The report considers the welfare of the children to be critical to the nation’s future prosperity, stability, global competitiveness and community strength.
The information Data Book has selected to highlight those developmental building blocks that research has identified as critical to healthy child development outcomes. According to the report: “Research tells us that the best predictors of success for children are a healthy start at birth and healthy development in the early years; being raised by two married parents; having adequate family income; doing well in school, graduating high school and completing postsecondary education or training; and young people avoiding teen pregnancy and substance abuse, staying out of trouble and becoming connected to work and opportunity.”
The Data Book provides national and state level data. It ranks overall child well-being on a state by state basis and also ranks each state according to indicators that relate to: (1) Economic Well-Being, (2) Education, (3) Health and (4) Family and Community. The Data Book found substantial variability in child well-being between states and by income, race, ethnicity and geography: “… despite tremendous gains during recent decades for children of all races and income levels, inequities among children persist, and children of color face more obstacles to opportunity.”
Long-Term Trends in Children’s Welfare
Among the improvements in child well-being between 1990 and 2012 reported on by the Data Book are:
Remaining negative trends include:
Overall Child Well-Being
Much of the decline in economic well being of children can be attributed to the “great recession” and subsequent slow recovery. In contrast, a booming economy in the late 1990s, together with and a series of anti-poverty policy changes and programs, led to increased employment among low-income single mothers and declines in child poverty, especially for African-American and Latino children. In 2013, 64 percent of mothers with children under the age of 6 were employed, compared with 58 percent in 1990.
The employment prospects of mothers with young children are particularly important for child poverty as more mothers have joined the labor force and there are more single parent homes headed by mothers.
In the globalized economy, well-paying, unionized blue-collar jobs have continued to disappear, and new job growth has been concentrated in the low-wage service sector and at the high end where jobs typically require a bachelor’s, or even a graduate, degree. Men without a college degree have lost ground economically. In the context of growing economic inequality, children’s life chances are increasingly constrained by the socioeconomic status of their parents.
An important favorable trend is increased participation in early childhood programs. In the1990s, enrollment in the federal Head Start program for 3- and 4-year-olds, increased and more states adopted or expanded prekindergarten programs that typically target low-income and other at-risk children. These expansions continued until the recession reduced state budgets and halted progress. As a result of these early childhood program expansions, nationally, the percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds attending preschool increased from 38 percent to 51percent between 1990 and 2012.
But the fact that two-thirds of public school fourth graders are not proficient in reading and two-thirds of eighth graders are not proficient in math is alarming evidence of substantial weakness in the nation’s educational system and accomplishments.
Health and Safety
These favorable changes are attributed to advances in medicine and public health, increased public health insurance coverage for children through Medicaid expansions and the implementation of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and increased safety regulations.
Family and Community
Two of the key indicators relating to family and community have improved. The proportion of children in families where the household head lacks a high school diploma declined fro 16 percent to 15 percent, and one of the most notable success stories has been the decline in teen births per 1,000 from 40 to 29. It should be recognized however, that this teen birth rate is high compared to most other well-off countries and numbers about 300,000 births per year.
The Data Book considers “One of the most troubling trends for child well-being is the steady decline in the percentage of children living with two married parents. In 2012, 35 percent of children were living with a single parent; the rate for African-American children was 67 percent. About half of all children will spend a portion of their childhood in a single-parent home.”
Particularly troubling is the failure of an alarming two-thirds school children to attain reading and math proficiency.
The Data Book notes the differences in child well-being and long-term outcomes can be reduced by interventions that can be made at the state and federal levels through smart policies, effective programs, and high-quality practices, and stresses that additional attention needs to be focused on reducing the issues raised by the data on child welfare, for example, the number of children living in poverty and in high-poverty neighborhoods.
Reference: The Annie E. Casey Foundation. (2014). 2014 Kids Count Data Book. Baltimore, MD: Speer L, Gutierrez F, et. al. Retrieved from http://www.aecf.org/resources/the-2014-kids-count-data-book/
The reader is encouraged to read the full report. It is available at: http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-2014kidscountdatabook-2014.pdf