The federal government's most comprehensive statistical measurement
of the well-being
of children has found that child poverty, child mortality, teenage pregnancy and juvenile
violence have reached their lowest rates in 20 years and, in some cases, since the
government began collecting statistics.
The report, which annually compiles the voluminous statistics on children
the federal government, also documented wide disparities by race and income –
with white, affluent youth far ahead of their counterparts –
although measures of distress declined uniformly in all groups.
Even with these gains, the United States remains well behind therest of the industrialized world,
and even some third-world countries, in these categories.
"The good news is that so many indicators are improving, and keep improving,"
said Duane Alexander, a physician who directs the National Institute of Child Health
and Human Development. "But even with teenage pregnancy, which just reached the lowest
level ever recorded in this country, we have the highest rate in the industrialized world."
The report, titled "America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being"
by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, reflects intensifying national
attention to what is now the largest generation of children in American history. The population
of Americans under 18 was 70.2 million in 1999, larger than at the peak of the Baby Boom
in the 1960s, according to the report which was released this afternoon.
Policymakers, politicians and academics are monitoring their gains and
and the report's release prompted conflicting interpretations of where America's youth
and by extension, America; is heading.
President Clinton speaking to the NAACP in Baltimore applauded the report's
"This is very good news. And I hope you will trumpet it, not because we're as safe as
we need to be, but because we need to destroy stereotypes so we can start
making real progress on the issues still remaining."
Douglas Besharov, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute,
who prides himself
as neither liberal or conservative, attributed the change to economic and societal factors.
"The people who said a strong economy would redirect a lot of these
trends were right," he said.
"But the folks who said our problems were problems of choice; meaning that people could
clean up their acts and behave more 'virtuously';turned out to be right also."
Analysts of all persuasions said the improved conditions of early childhood
generally; in particular
the declining rate of children born to teenage mothers, who almost universally go on to suffer
from poverty and educational problems ; would translate into a healthier and less dependent
generation for years to come. But the continuing racial and economic disparities showed that
poor and minority children lag seriously in school performance, which child advocates warn
will only increase these gaps in the future.
In contrast to the generally improving picture of health, income and
safety, binge drinking,
drug use and cigarette smoking showed no decrease and educational performance remained
flat throughout all ethnic groups. But analysts said the education statistics may eventually catch up.
"Educational outcomes are the product of years of exposure to educational,
home and community
environments," said Rebecca Maynard, an economist and visiting fellow at Princeton University
who specializes in educational research and policy. "Educational outcomes will show greatest
improvements for youths who experience improved environments from a young age."
The generation of children born since 1982 is being called the Millennial
Generation, since its
oldest members became adults this year. William Strauss, co-author with Neil Howe of the
forthcoming book, "Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation," interpreted the report
as evidence that the current generation of children will change the direction of the country.
Regarding the declines in violence and pregnancy in particular, he said,
"There is a lot of
good news of what's going on in teenage America. Teenagers aren't the ones making those
nasty teenage movies. They're being made by Generation Xers. This is, in fact, the first
generation in the history of popular culture that is less violent, less sexually charged and
less vulgar than the popular culture adults are creating for them."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company