Kids’ Well-Being Improves, But Poverty and Health Worsen

Smoking, illegal drug use and teen birth rates are down among U.S. children, but poverty and health problems – particularly due to obesity – are worsening, according to a new report on kids’ well-being.

Children’s overall well-being has improved just 4.5 percent since 1975, according to the 2005 Index of Child Well-Being, which has gauged how well children are faring in this country for the last 30 years.

This year’s index found only a fractional improvement in child well-being from 2002 to 2003. The Foundation for Child Development, which released the index, acknowledges that progress has been “modest and slow,” but also warns of the damage that poverty and obesity have done to the nation’s kids.

“If you took away the huge declines in crime, violence and risky behaviors since the early 1990s, the picture for America’s children would be bleak,” notes Kenneth Land, Ph.D., developer of the index and a sociologist at Duke University. “We need to do a better job investing in our children’s futures.”

The 2005 index found more kids living in poverty today than in 1975, due to a decline in the financial state of American families that has continued since 2000. Median family income has fallen steadily since 1999 and was projected to have dropped even further in 2004.

Meanwhile, children’s overall health has worsened, primarily due to the nation’s serious childhood obesity problem, which has been blamed for a host of resulting illnesses and health conditions. The index’s overall child health score for 2003 was about 17 percent below 1975 levels.

“It took a generation for overweight and obesity to reach these extreme levels, and it’s going to take at least a generation to turn those levels back,” Land notes.

But the index does show a significant drop in youth violence, drug use and other risky behavior since 1975, including:

• a decrease of more than 64 percent in criminal activity among adolescents and teens;

• a 38 percent drop in the rate of child victims of violent crime; and

• a 37 percent decrease in births to teen or adolescent mothers.

Cigarette smoking and illegal drug use continue to fall, although the rate of binge alcohol drinking among teens and adolescents increased from 27.9 percent in 2003 to 29.2 percent in 2004. Land attributes the general decline in risky activities to the end of the crack cocaine epidemic, a strong economy in the mid-to-late 1990s, community policing, and baby boomers’ more active parenting style.

“Parents who grew up during the ’70s and early ’80s saw firsthand – and possibly even experienced – the harmful effects of marijuana and cocaine use,” Land says. “Because of that, they may be more assertive about controlling their children’s behavior.”

Ironically, he credits the increased scheduling of children’s time, along with increased video game and computer use, for keeping kids indoors and out of trouble.

While at-home TV and computer time has been criticized as much as the perception that kids are “over-scheduled,” Land notes that today’s children are more attached to school and family than their parents were as teens.

“For the boomer generation, ‘question authority’ was the motto of the day. But today’s kids are likely to accept authority, and accordingly, less likely to run afoul of established social values,” he says.

– Deirdre Wilson