Statistical Portrait

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.”

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Long-Term Trends in Children’s Welfare
Changes in the demography of children in the U.S. are striking.  Between 1990 and 2012, the child population grew from 64 million to 74 million.  The share of white children declined from 69 percent to 53 percent while the share of Latino children doubled from 12 percent to 24 percent.  According to the Data Book, "by 2018, children of color will represent a majority of children, and by 2030, the majority of workers will be people of color. By the middle of the 21st century, no single racial group will comprise a majority of the population."

Among the improvements in child well-being between 1990 and 2012 reported on by the Data Book are:

  • An increase from 38 percent to 51 percent of 3- and 4- year olds attending preschool 
  • An increase in the number of kids proficient in reading and math
  • Increased access to health care
  • Increased education levels of parents
  • Declines in the teen birth rate
  • Declines in the child mortality rate
  • During the past 20 year the incarceration rate among youth has decreased by 45 percent.
  • Declines in Juvenile crime rates

Remaining negative trends include:

  • The supplemental child poverty rate rose from 16 percent in 2000, to 22 percent in 2012, resulting in more than 16 million children living in poverty
  • In 1990, 25 percent of children lived in a single-parent household; by 2012, this share had risen to 35 percent
  • The share of low birth-weight babies has risen
  • The share of children growing up in poor communities has increased; in 2012, 13 percent of children were living in neighborhoods where the poverty rate was 30 percent or higher
  • The growth in nonmarital births. In 1995 32 percent of births were among unmarried mothers by 2008 and since, 41 percent of babies were born to unmarried mothers.

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Overall Child Well-Being
The Data Book has prepared a composite index taking into account the four domains analyzed in the study: (1) Economic Well-Being; (2) Education; (3) Health and; (4) Family and Community.  The study found that the lowest ranked states were in the Southeast, Southwest and Appalachia and all of the Northeastern states were in the top 10.  The top five states were Massachusetts, Vermont, Iowa, New Hampshire and Minnesota, the lowest ranked states were Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico with Mississippi ranked lowest.

Economic Well-Being
The Data Book found that over the decade ending in 2012, three of the four key indicators to assess child economic well-being were getting worse.  The proportion of children in poverty increased from 19 percent in 2005 to 23 percent, or 16.4 million children.  The proportion of children whose parents lack secure employment increased from 27 percent in 2008 to 31 percent, or 23.1 million children, and children living in households with a high housing cost burden, increased from 37 to 38 percent or 27.8 million children.  The trend for the fourth indicator, teens not in school and not working, remained unchanged at 8 percent.

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.

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The national trends of each of the four indicators relating to education have improved over the past decade.  The proportion of children not attending preschool declined from 56 percent to 54 percent but this still represents 4.3 million children without preschool.  The proportion of fourth graders not proficient in reading declined form 70 percent to 66 percent.  The proportion of eighth graders not proficient in math declined from 72 percent to 66 percent and the proportion of high school students not graduating on time declined from 27 percent to 19 percent.

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
All four of the key indicators relating to health have improved over the last decade.  Declines occurred in the proportion of low-birthweight births (8.2 percent to 8.0 percent), children without health insurance (10 percent to 7 percent), child and teen deaths per 100,000 (32 to 26) and teens who abuse alcohol or drugs (8 percent to 6 percent).

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.

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Family and Community
Of the four key indicators relating to family and community, two have gotten worse over the past decade with children in single-parent families increasing from 32 percent to 35 percent, and the proportion of children living in high-poverty areas increasing from 9 percent to 13 percent.

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.”

Poverty in America is widespread: 23 percent of children (16.4 million) live in families with incomes below the poverty line ($23,283 for a family of four in 2012) and 45 percent (32.8 million) are at or below 200 percent of poverty. Lack of adequate family income, made worse by the lagging economy, threatens children’s well-being. Far too many children are subject to the adverse effects of living in single-parent families, living in high-poverty areas, having parents who lack secure employment and have high housing-cost burdens.

Particularly troubling is the failure of an alarming two-thirds school children to attain reading and math proficiency.
There are some important favorable trends, however.  The increased share of children who participate in early childhood development programs is a positive development as is the dramatic decline in teen pregnancies.  Pregnant teens who keep their babies have much lower chance of attaining the educational and occupational skills to fully participate in today’s job market.  Although not a topic covered in the Data Book, the fact that half of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned or unwanted shows that family planning in America still has far to go.

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

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