America's Children 1999

Patrice Pascual
July 19, 1999

In recent years, the lives of America's children have improved in measurable ways, according to a new collaborative report from federal agencies. America's Children 1999 shows that youth are less likely to smoke, die and or be victimized by crime, but they have made fewer gains in areas that predict their economic futures. Nineteen percent of children live in poverty—virtually unchanged since 1980—and rates of high school and college graduation have remained static in times of recent economic success.

The purpose of the report, according to Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is to highlight statistical trends as a sort of Dow Jones indicator of children's well-being. "I would contend that our children are as important to the future of the country as the economy," he told the Associated Press.

Among the report's most positive results is a 40 percent drop in serious violent crime involving juvenile offenders since 1993. Shay Bilchik, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Drug Prevention, attributes the decline to a convergence of state, local and national efforts, including community policing, after-school activities and raised expectations of and consequences for juveniles. While an increasing number of states are now treating juvenile offenders as adults, Bilchik says the "small core group" for whom such sentencing may be appropriate is likely being extended to youth who do not fit that profile.

"We're learning that there are things missing in kids' lives," Bilchik added, arguing for early intervention with at-risk families. Studies of such efforts—such as in-home visits to teach parenting skills—have been shown to lessen rates of child abuse and subsequent juvenile offenses. At present, juveniles commit a quarter of the nation's violent crimes.

Positive measures were also found in the percentage of children enrolled in preschool education, which reached 48 percent in 1997, up from 45 percent the previous year. Enrollment among black, non-Hispanic children increased the most, from 45 percent to 55 percent. Increased availability of preschool programs for the children of women leaving welfare is seen as a likely reason for that success.

High school and college completion rates remained static from 1996 to present. Thirty-one percent of high school graduates now aged 25 to 29 have earned a college degree; or 35 percent of whites, 18 percent of blacks and 17 percent of Hispanics. High school completion stands at 91 percent for whites, 82 percent for blacks and 67 percent for Hispanics. Future earning expectations for those with only a high school degree continues to decline.

Two new measures included in this study also bear watching. Children's diets are poor, and worsen as they grow older and make independent eating choices. Only one-quarter of preschool children's diets met standards set by the Agriculture Department; that figure dropped to 6 percent among teen-agers.

Additionally, 12.3 percent of children aged 5 to 17 have difficulty performing some everyday activity, such as communicating, eating or dressing. Many of these children are receiving special education services, which have seen a marked increase in demand in recent years.