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Kids today less likely to become pregnant or die; more likely to live in poverty

The new Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation — the 25th — finds a mixed bag of progress and lost ground when it comes to childhood wellbeing.
Lois M. Collins, Deseret News Modified: July 22, 2014 at 4:11 am •  Published: July 22, 2014

Teen pregnancy rates are down dramatically and American children are more likely to reach adulthood than they were 25 years ago. But more of them are growing up impoverished.

The yearly Kids Count report, produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, provides a snapshot of what life is like for children in America, based on economic well-being, education, health and community measures. The 25th edition of the report was released Monday night.

A higher percentage of children live in poverty today than in 1990. The rate at first dropped from 18 percent but has since climbed again to 23 percent, said Laura Speer, the foundation's associate director over policy reform and advocacy. Some policies have helped economically fragile families, “but we live in a different economy now than we did in 1990,” she said. “What families face now to make ends meet is very different than it was, especially for those without a high level of education and without a highly skilled breadwinner in the household.”

Even in homes where two parents work, most families struggle economically, which Speer called “distressing.”

“It’s good we made as much progress as we did in lots of areas, but in how much American families are struggling, it has not gotten easier for most families in the country over that 25 years,” she said.

Today’s kids, standing on the brink of adulthood, must “achieve a whole lot more in terms of education and training entering the work force than their parents and certainly their grandparents did to survive and support their families," Speer predicted.

"Looking back a quarter century has been illuminating,” said Speer. “We do Kids Count because we believe the well-being of kids is the most important indicator for the well-being of the country. We found a lot of progress. We also saw there are still pretty dramatic inequities.”

By the numbers

Education and health are both bright spots, with improvement across both since 2005. The number of children not attending preschool dropped to 54 percent from 56 percent. The number of high school seniors not graduating is down to 19 percent from 27 percent, a big improvement. (The survey compared some of the 2012 numbers reported this year to those from 2005 in order to look at what was happening mid-decade, before the recession, said Kimberly Varner, speaking for the Casey foundation.)

But numbers can improve and still be distressing. The report said two-thirds of fourth graders are not proficient readers and a like number of 8th graders lag in math. Both were higher — above 70 percent — in 2005.

The number of low birth-weight babies is holding fairly steady at 8 percent; just 7 percent of children lack health insurance compared to 10 percent during the early part of the recession; and childhood deaths are 26 per 100,000 compared to 32 percent less than a decade ago. Only 6 percent of teens now abuse alcohol and drugs, a 25-percent improvement from 2005-2008.

When it comes to economic well-being, there’s nothing in the report to celebrate. Besides the fact that 23 percent of children live in poverty, more parents lack secure employment and struggle to afford adequate housing. Unchanged is the fact that one in 12 teens neither work nor go to school, a number the recession's end did not improve.

A higher percentage of kids also live in single-parent families and in high-poverty areas than in 2005. But far fewer high school students dropped out, with the figure falling to 19 percent now from 29 percent in the 2005/2006 school year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say kids are most likely to die from motor vehicle accidents, falls, burns and drowning. But the number of children dying from each has decreased significantly — a 19 percent decline for deaths from falls and a 45 percent decline for fires and burns, said Janet Brooks, child advocacy manager at Primary Chidlren’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. What has not improved is the suffocation rate of children from improper sleeping and bedding or poison-related deaths, mostly from inappropriate use of prescription and illegal drugs.

Some gains may surprise people.

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