Report: 1990s Were Mostly Kind to Kids

Finds improvement on several health, welfare fronts

(HealthDay is the new name for HealthScoutNews.)

THURSDAY, June 12, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- American kids across the economic spectrum are significantly better off than they were a decade ago.

That's the main message of this year's Kids Count Data Book, released Wednesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. The 224-page report, which has been published every year since 1990, includes the most recent state-by-state and national data available on child welfare.

"I was in awe at the depth of improvement in child well-being in the 1990s," says William O'Hare, director of the foundation's Kids Count program and author of the report. "Eight out of 10 indicators improved and in almost every state. Low-income kids improved more as a percentage basis than middle-income kids. There were real deep, wide sorts of improvements."

The Data Book looks at 10 measures of child well-being. In 2000, only two indicators had failed to improve: low birth-weight babies and the number of single-parent families.

Here is the encouraging news from the report:

  • The child poverty rate is at its lowest point in about 30 years; it fell from 20 percent in 1990 to 17 percent in 2000. Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico had the highest poverty rates and New Hampshire the lowest.
  • The national infant mortality rate showed a 25 percent improvement over the last decade, declining from 9.2 to 6.9 deaths per every 1,000 live births. Only Hawaii and North Dakota had higher rates in 2000 than in 1990. Massachusetts had the highest overall score in this category and Mississippi the worst.
  • There was a 29 percent improvement in the child death rate, with 22 deaths occurring per 100,000 children between the ages of 1 and 14. Montana was the only state whose child death rate worsened. Vermont had the best overall score and Mississippi the worst.
  • There was also an improvement in the deaths of teens aged 15 to 19 as a result of accidents, suicides or homicides. The national rate plummeted from 71 per 100,000 teens in 1990 to 51 per 100,000 in 2000. Massachusetts had the best rating and Alaska the worst.
  • Teens had fewer children in all states. The national birth rate for 15-to-17-year-olds fell from 37 births per 1,000 girls to 27 per 1,000, a 27 percent improvement. New Hampshire and Vermont had the lowest number of teen births; Mississippi, the highest.
  • The high-school dropout rate fell slightly, from 10 percent in 1990 to 9 percent in 2000. Most states stayed the same or had fewer drop-outs, while Wisconsin, Oregon, Colorado and others had significant increases. Overall, North Dakota had the lowest drop-out rate and Arizona the highest.
  • The percentage of teenagers doing nothing (i.e., not attending school or working) fell from 10 percent in 1990 to 8 percent in 2000. At 29 percent, Oregon had the highest increase in idle teens. Overall, Iowa and Minnesota scored the best in this category and West Virginia was the worst.

There's no clear answer as to why these improvements took place, but "the hot economy had to play a role," O'Hare says. "Kids do better when families have steady employment and make more money."

Also, O'Hare adds, "There was an expansion of a lot of programs to support low-income working families. I think those programs were implemented and expanded and had a payoff in terms of better children's welfare."

But these gains are not enough, says Dr. Adam Aponte, chairman of the departments of pediatrics and ambulatory care at North General Hospital in New York City. "There are still a significant number of children who are uninsured," he says. "Asthma is the most common chronic disease in children; it still is."

Also, the big picture can be misleading, he adds. "We're doing great as a country, but there are too many pockets where you have children who have not felt any of the impacts of the new economy," Aponte says. In Harlem, where Aponte practices, the infant mortality rate rose last year, he notes.

In addressing the indicators that had not improved, the report found 7.6 percent of babies born in 2002 weighed less than 5.5 pounds, compared with 7 percent of babies born a decade earlier, a trend attributed to a rise in the use of artificial reproductive technologies. Georgia and the District of Columbia were the only two areas that did not experience an increase in low birth-weight babies. The overall best states in this category were Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, while Mississippi recorded the worst rates.

And the number of single-parent families was 28 percent in 2000, up from 24 percent in 1990. Colorado and Indiana were the only two states that saw this percentage go down. Overall, Utah had the lowest percentage of single-family households and Louisiana the highest.

Also, although the percentage of children living in a household where no parent had full-time, year-round work dropped by 20 percent, almost one in four American children (24 percent) lived in a household without a steadily employed parent. Iowa, Maryland and Minnesota scored highest in this category. Louisiana and West Virginia brought up the rear.

The report also turned up more sobering economic news.

Housing costs appear to be eating up more and more of families' resources. Nationally, 59 percent of low-income households with children had housing costs that exceeded 30 percent of their income, which is the recommended threshold.

And 41 percent of households eligible for food stamps in 2000 did not receive them.

More information

View the full report at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Children's Defense Fund has information on a wide range of children's issues, including the Children's Health Insurance Program.

SOURCES: William O'Hare, Ph.D., director, Kids Count Program, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Baltimore; Adam Aponte, M.D., chairman, departments of pediatrics and ambulatory care, North General Hospital, New York City; Kids Count Data Book 2003
Consumer News