By Adam Marcus HealthDay Reporter

Updated on June 15, 2022

FRIDAY, July 12, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- American children are better off in many ways than they have been in years past.

That's what a new government report shows, and the good news includes that fewer teens are getting pregnant now than ever before, that the share of kids raised in poverty is down, and that almost 60 percent of preschoolers now are read to by a relative every day.

Perhaps most important, officials say, the nation's infant mortality rate fell between 1998 and 1999, when it hit 7 per 1,000 live births, down from 7.2 per 1,000 the year before.

Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, calls the lower infant death rate a "triumph of science" that gives him "great pleasure."

Alexander says the reduction from the 1990 rate of 9.2 deaths per 1,000 live births was due to 50-plus percent declines in respiratory illnesses and sudden infant death syndrome during the decade.

Despite the positive findings, officials say children have been treading water in some key categories.

Only 76 percent of kids are well-immunized -- a figure that's much lower among minorities -- and the number of high school seniors who drink heavily and smoke cigarettes each day is still too high: 30 percent in 2001 and 19 percent in 2000, respectively.

While smoking rates among 8th and 10th graders dropped between 2000 and 2001, Alexander says officials were "very concerned" about the stubborn rates of tobacco, drug and alcohol use among older youth.

There are even areas where kids are losing ground.

Fewer children are enrolled in preschool programs, which improve the chances for future educational and professional success. More troubling is the fact that almost 15 percent of children in 1999 were considered seriously overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's many more than ever before, and a figure that continues to grow.

Tommy G. Thompson, secretary of health and human services, calls the latest portrait "reassuring news." However, he stresses, "we have much yet to accomplish. In particular, lifetime habits of health are formed in childhood. We need to do even more to convey information and motivation to our young people that will help them practice good health habits -- healthy diets, exercise and avoidance of tobacco and substance abuse," he says in a statement released today.

The report, America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2002, is in its sixth year. Collected by several federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health Statistics, the snapshot covers 24 measures of physical, educational and social welfare.

Parents rated more than eight in 10 children in very good or excellent health in 2000, similar to previous years. Although children in poor homes are more likely to be in worse health, the gap between rich and poor has been closing since the mid-1980s.

Fewer children went hungry at home in 2000 than in 1999, that's .8 percent, or half a million, versus 1 percent, the report found. However, the number of kids who live in homes where food is scarce enough to threaten an active and healthy life is much higher.

In 2001, slightly more than 4 percent of the nation's children lived in homes with such "food insecurity," down from 4.7 percent in 1998. Adults often eat less or go without in these situations.

Not only is infant mortality in retreat, but deaths among older children are also down, officials say. The major cause of death for U.S. children is unintentional injury, an umbrella category in which car accidents top the list. Not being adequately restrained in a vehicle is the principle reason kids die in wrecks, says Edward Sondik, director of the National Center for Health Statistics.

The faces of American children continue to grow more varied. White children, who in 1980 accounted for almost three-quarters of their age group, made up 64 percent of the population under age 18 in 2000, the report found. The young Hispanic population swelled during that time, from 9 percent to 16 percent, fastest among all ethnicities. By 2020, the report says, one in five American children will be Hispanic.

Reflecting the diversity of the country, 19 percent of American children in 2001 had at least one foreign-born parent, up from 15 percent in 1994.

"This is an important indicator because many of those children live in families that are poor, and many of their parents have less than a high school degree," says Nancy Gordon, associate director for demographic programs at the U.S. Census Bureau. "The children may need additional assistance."

Although the percentage of children living in poverty didn't change between 1999 and 2000, it's at its lowest level since 1979, officials say.

The share of children living with a single mother who worked rose from 33 percent in 1993 to 50 percent in 2000. Similarly, fewer children, and especially those who are black, who live with only their mother are poor. In 1980, one in two children in these family setups was at or below the poverty line, a figure that dropped to 40 percent by 2000. The poverty threshold for a family of three is $13,800, Gordon says.

The percentage of children under age 18 with health insurance climbed slightly, from 87 percent in 1999 to 88 percent in 2000. However, the share with no regular source of health care stayed steady, at 7 percent.

Among the education indicators, officials say they were particularly encouraged by the rising number of preschoolers whose parents read to them regularly. That figure rose from 54 percent in 1999 to 58 percent in 2000.

Jerry West, director of the early childhood and household studies program at the National Center for Education Statistics, which contributed to the report, says reading to young children better prepares them for school and improves their academic performance. West attributed the rise in reading rates largely to better educated parents, and especially mothers.

What To Do

For more on the report, try the National Academy of Sciences.

For more on child welfare in America, visit the Children's Defense Fund.

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