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Kathy Slobogin: Report shows fewer births to teens, less teen smoking

Kathy Slobogin is an education and family-issues correspondent for CNN.

Q: A federal report released today on the well being of America's children seems to show good news. Where were the greatest strides made?

SLOBOGIN: There was a reduction in child poverty and increase in children with health insurance. Of course, those are two things that are crucial to children's well being, so those were important. The other two fairly dramatic changes were a decrease in births to teens - this is a trend that has been going on for a number of years - basically, it was a 25% decline in the last 10 years. And it has enormous implications, not only for the teen mothers, but also for their children. There was also significant decrease in teen smoking. And since that had gone up for a number of years in the '90s, child advocates really welcome the news that in the last three or four years, that trend has reversed itself. There has been a significant decrease in older teens and younger teens smoking.

Q: On the other hand, the Children's Defense fund says it's not quite as good as it looks. Where do they think improvements still need to be made?

SLOBOGIN: Children's Defense Fund really operates from the same figures that this federal report operates from. They tend to see the children left behind. There are still more than 11 million children living in poverty in a very rich nation and 10 million children who don't have health insurance. In addition to that, one of the trends I think they're worried about is that, increasingly, children who are poor are in families where one or both parents work - I think it's up to 30 percent of poor children now who are in such families. What this means is that having a job isn't necessarily enough to lift your family out of poverty, and they're looking at the positive trend which has been buoyed by the stronger economy, and they're saying: what happens if and when the economy is weakened or weakening, which it seems to be. Not only can jobs not lift you out of poverty, but there may not even be the jobs for the poorest families. They're just looking at how much of this is permanent and who is left behind.

The Children's Defense Fund has made recommendations over the years. If I can summarize what many child advocates say: It's that this country doesn't do enough to make it possible for parents who, as I say, do play by the rules and do work full time to succeed economically. We don't invest enough in child care subsidies, we don't invest enough in transportation, so that many of these families who are struggling to get a toehold in the economy slip off too easily because they don't have the support. The Children's Defense Fund often says that we invest the least in these services of any western industrialized nation and we need to do more to support working families.

Q: How might lawmakers be influenced by this report?

SLOBOGIN: The child advocates will press for more support for working families - more day care subsidies, more subsidies for transportation costs. Very often people have to travel long distances to get to decent jobs. Certainly they will work more for extending health insurance to the working poor. Strong support for earned income tax credit, which has helped so many working families, and they'll try to protect that from many changes. There are politicians on both sides of the spectrum who could pick and choose statistics to prove anything that they want. Perhaps some who favor welfare reform will say, 'look in the wake of welfare reform, children are being lifted out of poverty, more families being headed by single women are being lifted out of poverty, so welfare reform was a good thing.' On the other side of the spectrum, you'll have people saying 'well, these people were lifted out of poverty because of the good economy, but what if the economy goes south? These people have a tenuous hold on financial success as it is. So I don't know that there's a clear legislative agenda that comes from this report - it's really more of a compilation of indicators that will basically take the temperature of America's children.

Q: What else about this report?

SLOBOGIN: One of the few negative indicators was an uptick in asthma. It's now become the most common chronic childhood illness in America and it afflicts about five percent of American children and seven percent of African American children. This is really running counter to most of the health indicators, and the experts don't know what is causing it. They've done studies on air pollution, on changes in home environment and toxins, but there has really been nothing conclusive so far. This is quite worrisome to child advocates and people who watch children's health.

• Kathy Slobogin Bio

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