WASHINGTON – In a wide-ranging look at how children have fared in their first decade of life, a study to be released today offers a promising picture of American childhood: Sixth-graders feel safer at school. Reading and math scores are up for 9-year-olds. More preschoolers are vaccinated. Fewer are poisoned by lead.
The analysis, which created a composite index of more than 25 key national indicators, reports a nearly 10 percent boost in children’s well-being from 1994 to 2006. This overall improvement comes in spite of two significant downtrends: a worsening in rates of childhood obesity and in low-birth-weight babies.
“There are some really encouraging signs of progress,” said Ruby Takanishi, president of the nonprofit Foundation for Child Development, which funded the research. “I think it’s important as a country … to see that there are things that parents can do, that government can do, that institutions can do, to make measurable differences for children.”
Experts familiar with the report credited shifts in government policy, in the economy and in parenting for the advances highlighted in the study, done by Kenneth Land, a Duke University sociologist and demographer. But they also cautioned that significant problems remain and that the recent economic downturn could take a toll.
Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University, noted that the greatest progress tracked by the report occurred before the nation’s economy slowed in 2001. “With the economy weakening further, we may see an additional slowing of the improvement or perhaps even some backsliding,” he said.
The report brought together a broad collection of mostly federal data, much of it from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Bureau of the Census, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice.
The study is unusual for its melding of trend lines over 12 years: in education, health, safety, economics, social relationships and community involvement. The authors said the idea was to examine how the younger half of American children is doing – apart from generally improving statistics on teenage pregnancy and substance abuse.
The report showed, for example, that mortality rates for children ages 1 to 4 have declined by one-third, from 42.9 per 100,000 in 1994 to 28.1 in 2006. Land cited possible reasons including better medical care and nutrition, mandatory use of car seats and safer playgrounds.
The homicide rate for children ages 5 to 9 dropped by half, from 1.2 per 100,000 in 1994 to 0.6 in 2005. “Even for relatively rare events, that’s still good news,” Land said.
Another statistic that stood out was in the number of sixth-grade students who said they feared attack or harm at school, or on the way to or from school. The report showed a 36 percent decline, from 14.3 percent in 1995 to 9.1 percent in 2006.
That progress came as fewer mothers smoked during pregnancy, with statistics showing a decline from 14.6 percent in 1994 to 9.3 percent in 2006, also a 36 percent drop.
Craig Ramey, director of the Center on Health and Education at Georgetown University, said he took heart in the findings. “We still have quite substantial levels of problems to deal with, but isn’t it nice to see some trend lines that say some programs are having impact?” he said.
In family life, more parents limited television watching with three or more rules about programs or hours in front of the screen. For children ages 3 to 5, the percentage climbed from 54 percent in 1994 to 70 percent in 2006. For children ages 6 to 11, the numbers rose to 73.2 in 2006, from 60.3 in 1994.
At school, more children attended full-day kindergarten – with 70 percent enrolled in 2006, up from 48.6 percent in 1994. And among 9-year-olds, National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in reading and math increased by what Land described as significant amounts. Scores remained flat in science.
With lead, the study reported a striking decline in the percentage of children under 6 with elevated levels of lead in their blood, which can have damaging health and neurological effects. In 1997, 7.6 percent of children tested positive at elevated levels; the percentage fell to 1.2 in 2006, marking an 84 percent decline, according to the report.
Takanishi said she was “blown away” by the change. “For all of us who have been working in these areas for a number of decades, it gives us some hope that change is possible,” she said.
Other experts expressed great concern about some trends.
Obesity, the report noted, ranked as one of the most adverse health trends for the age group.
The report points out that obese children accounted for 12.7 percent of 6-to-11-year-olds in 1994, and an estimated 20.6 percent in 2006. For younger children, ages 2 to 5, the figure climbed from 8.4 percent to 15.8 percent during the same period.