Child Poverty, Adolescent Birth Rate Continue Decline

The well-being of America's children has improved on several fronts, according to the Federal government's fifth annual report, America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2001. For most indicators, children gained or held their own. The report noted, however, that there was a lack of progress for several measures. Among the significant gains:

  • The child poverty rate continued to decline between 1998 and 1999, with the sharpest declines occurring for children in female-householder families.
  • The percentage of children living in households with at least one parent employed full time increased from 1998 to 1999.
  • For the second year in a row, adolescent births were at a record low in 1999.
  • More children had health insurance in 1999 than in 1998.
  • The adolescent death rate dropped to an all-time low.
  • 10th- and 12th-graders were less likely to smoke in 2000 than in 1999.

The report, compiled by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, presents a comprehensive look at critical areas of child well-being, including economic security, health status, behavior, social environment, and education. Members of the public may access the report at

"These findings represent important victories for children and adolescents," said Duane Alexander, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. "Children are less likely to live in poverty, more likely to have a parent working full-time, and more likely to have health insurance."

Children living in poverty are more likely to have difficulty in school, to earn less as adults, and to become teen parents, Dr. Alexander explained. In turn, adolescent childbearing is also associated with negative outcomes. Compared to infants born to older women, infants born to adolescent mothers are at a higher risk of low birthweight and infant mortality. When they are older, these children are less likely to complete high school. Becoming a teenage mother hinders the chance that a teenager can further her education, which diminishes her future employment prospects.

In addition to the drop in childhood poverty, this year's report also saw an increase in the number of children living in households with at least one parent employed full-time. This increase, from 77 percent in 1998 to 79 percent in 1999, is part of a larger upward trend, beginning at 72 percent in 1994.

Not all the news is good, however. According to the report, over 5 percent of children under age 18 had asthma in 1998, an increase of over 20 percent in ten years. In 1981, 3 percent of children had asthma. By 1988, this figure had increased to 4 percent.

"Asthma rates have risen over the years and pose a serious health threat to children," said Edward Sondik, Ph.D., Director of the National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He noted that the causes of this increase are uncertain, but may include better diagnosis of asthma as well as changes in environment, air quality, and access to preventive health care.

The percentage of children covered by health insurance at least part of the year also rose, from 85 percent in 1998 to 86 percent in 1999, the highest rate since 1995.

"However, over 14 percent of children in the U.S.?that's 10 million children under 18?did not have health insurance during the year," Dr. Sondik added.

The report states that the poverty rate for children in families dropped, from 18 percent in 1998 to 16 percent in 1999, the lowest rate in more than 20 years. Children in married-couple families were less likely to be living in poverty than children living only with their mothers. In 1999, 8 percent of children in married- couple families were living in poverty compared with 42 percent in female-householder families. However, the decrease in poverty was also apparent in female-householder families -- from 51 percent in 1980 to 42 percent in 1999.

"While fewer children lived in poverty in 1999, they were still much more likely to be poor than adults," said Nancy Gordon, Associate Director for Demographic Programs at the U.S. Census Bureau.

The report notes that children in married-couple families were less likely to be living in poverty than children living only with their mothers. In 1999, 8 percent of children in married-couple families were living in poverty compared with 42 percent in female-householder families.

Teenage birth rates also fell during the 1990s, declining by one-fourth between 1991 and 1999. The 1999 birth rate for teenagers between 15 and 17 was 29 per 1,000, a record low for the nation. This decline followed a one-fourth increase between 1986 and 1991.

Death rates for teenagers were also at all-time lows. The report states that the death rate for adolescents ages 15 to 19 was 71 deaths per 100,000 in 1998. By comparison, the death rate for adolescents in this age group was 89 per 100,000 in 1991. Injury accounted for 3 out of 4 adolescent deaths and includes homicide, suicide, and unintentional injuries. According to the report, the greatest declines in mortality were seen in firearm deaths, which fell from 28 deaths per 100,000 adolescents ages 15-19 in 1994, to 16 per 100,000 in 1998.

The percentage of 10th- and 12th-grade students who reported daily smoking in the past 30 days dropped in 2000. Among 10th-graders, the percentage fell to 14 percent from a high of 18 percent in 1996. For 12th-graders, the percentage fell from a recent high of 25 percent in 1997 to 21 percent in 2000.

A new indicator in this year's report focuses on the percentage of high school students who take advanced courses. Over 40 percent of 1998 high school graduates had taken at least one advanced mathematics course, and 60 percent had taken at least one advanced science class. This increase is part of a larger trend over the past 20 years; there was an increase in the percentage of students taking not only advanced courses in science, but also in mathematics, English, and foreign languages.

"The percentage of high school graduates who had taken advanced courses increased dramatically between 1982 and 1998. This means that larger proportions of students are being exposed to more rigorous curricula, essential for improving student performance and prospects for college," said Val Plisko, Associate Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. "Our data show that taking advanced academics in high school greatly enhances the likelihood of enrolling and persisting in college."

In 1999, the percentage of young adults between 18 and 24 who had completed high school also increased, from 85 percent in 1998, to 86 percent in 1999. The report notes that between 1990 and 1999, the percentage of students who completed high school by obtaining a regular diploma, dropped by 4 points, from 81 to 77 percent. However, the percentage of young adults who completed high school by obtaining an alternative credential rose during the same period, from 4 to 9 percent.

Dr. Plisko noted that many studies have shown that young adults with alternative credentials do not enjoy the same job opportunities and earnings as those with a regular diploma.

A special indicator found that working while in school is common among older high school students. The report states that almost 60 percent of students who were 16 years old at the beginning of the 1997-98 school year worked for an employer at some point during the school year. During the same time period, 18 percent of 14-year-olds worked at some point during the school year.

"Even at relatively young ages, youth enrolled in school begin forming strong, year-round attachments to the labor market," says Katharine G. Abraham, Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. "As students age, they are more likely to work during the school year, and they also work a higher percentage of those weeks while school is in session."

All other indicators monitored in the report?from the percentage of low birthweight infants, to the childhood immunization rate, to mathematics and reading scores?have either not changed or not changed in a statistically significant manner from the previous year:

  • The infant mortality rate remained at 7.2 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1998. The rate decreased dramatically during the early and mid-1990's, from 8.9 in 1990 to 7.2 in 1997 and 1998.
  • Average mathematics scores increased for all age groups between 1982 and 1999, but reading scores have remained stable in long-term assessments since 1980. However, there have been no significant improvements in either subject since the last assessment in 1996.
  • The percentage of all adults ages 25 to 29 who had completed a bachelor's degree or higher rose from 32 percent in 1999 to 33 percent in 2000. Although the change between the two years was not statistically significant, the number of adults who completed college or higher is at the highest level ever.
  • The violent crime victimization rate for youth 12 to 17 dropped from 25 per 1000 in 1998 to 20 per 1000 in 1999. Though this change was not statistically significant, it is part of a longer-term downward trend. The number of violent victimizations of youth (aggravated assault, rape, robbery, or homicide) fell by half between 1994 and 1999, from 41 to 20 per 1,000.
  • The percentage of low birthweight infants (less than 5 ½ pounds) born was 7.6 percent in 1998 and 1999, up slightly from the 1997 figure of 7.5 percent. The report states that one reason for the increase in low birthweight infants is the increase in multiple births in recent years. Twins and other multiples are more likely to be of low birthweight than are singletons. Low birthweight infants are at a higher risk of death and long-term illness or disability than are infants of normal birthweight.
  • Alcohol and illicit drug use by adolescents did not change substantially during the late 1990s. Both in 1995 and 2000, about 30 percent of 12th-graders reported having at least 5 drinks in a row in the last two weeks. Illicit drug use has remained fairly stable since 1997, with 25 percent of high school seniors reporting drug use in the past month in 2000.

According to the report, there were 70.4 million children under age 18 in the United States in 2000?26 percent of the population. Sixty-four percent of American children were white, non-Hispanic; 16 percent were Hispanic; 15 percent were black, non-Hispanic; 4 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander; and 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native. The percentage of children living with one parent increased from 20 percent in 1980 to 26 percent in 2000. The percentage of school-age children who speak a language other than English at home and have difficulty speaking English has nearly doubled over the last 20 years, increasing from 2.8 percent in 1979 to 5 percent in 1999.

The Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics fosters coordination and collaboration in the collection and reporting of Federal data on children and families. The Forum was established by Executive Order in 1997.


Statement by HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson Regarding the America's Children Report.

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