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America's children: Study has good news

Not all encouraging: 16 percent of kids in poverty

America's children: Study has good news

From Kathy Slobogin
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- American children are healthier and more economically secure than they have been in years, according to a federal report.

Infant mortality is down. Births to teenagers are at a record low. Most children -- 82 percent -- are in good or excellent health. And the percentage of children with a parent working full time has been increasing steadily for 20 years.

"The well-being of America's children is probably better than it ever has been," said Dr. Duane Alexander of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which released its sixth annual report card Friday on children in the United States.

The data are culled from 20 federal agencies and cover health, economic security, education and behavioral well-being.

Read the text of the study: "America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2002"  from the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics.

Alexander attributed the improvements to dramatic gains such as the steep decline in teen births and the lower infant mortality rate to a combination of medical research and public awareness.

He also cited the campaign to fight Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which combined medical findings with a push to educate the public.

"We've cut the SIDS rate in half since 1994, just by putting babies to sleep on their backs instead of their tummies," he said.

The report found that 80 percent of American children had at least one parent working full time, up from 70 percent in 1980. Although the child poverty rate -- 16 percent -- hasn't changed since last year, it is still the lowest rate since 1979.

African-American children have shown the most dramatic improvement: two thirds lived below the poverty line in 1980; today less than half do.

In a trend that will please educators, the report found that more young children are being read to daily by a family member. Although it contained no new data on academic achievement, the report summarized last year's findings: reading scores have improved while math scores have not.

The percentage of high school graduates who go on to receive a bachelor's degree remained at last year's rate -- 33 percent -- but that rate is an all-time high.

Not all the news is good, particularly in the area of adolescent behavior.

Although the number of 8th- and 10th-graders who smoke declined significantly, still 12 percent of 10th-graders and 5 percent of 8th- graders smoke daily. Alcohol consumption did not budge for high school seniors: 30 percent of them report drinking five or more drinks in a row at least once in the last two weeks.

"Here we are not seeing any improvement," said Alexander. "The line has been basically straight for high school senior alcohol use for the last seven or eight years. And this is not casual drinking."

Researchers are also concerned about the diet of American kids. Although the figure went up slightly from last year, only 27 percent of children eat a healthy diet. The main culprits are too much fat and too little calcium, especially among soda-guzzling teenagers.

"Only about two out of 10 teenage girls are getting the amount of calcium that she needs. And the figures are almost as bad for boys," said Alexander. "So we have a major dietary deficiency here."

The report also looked at diversity among American children and found that the melting pot is alive and well. Nineteen percent of children have a foreign-born parent.

Hispanic children are the fastest growing portion of the child population. By 2020, the report projects that one in five American children will be Hispanic.


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