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In 25 Years, U.S. Children Make Fragile Progress, Kids Count Analysis Finds

American children are in many ways healthier and better educated today—even after the Great Recession—than they were a quarter-century ago, according to the latest Kids Count data book, an index of child well-being released Tuesday morning. But children's and parents' gains are precarious as families continue to sink into poverty, and wide racial gaps remain.

In its 25th annual report, the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation finds U.S. children improving on 10 out of 16 indicators, particularly in education and health, even after taking the economic downturn into account. It analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other federal agencies. Among the findings:

  • In 2012, 15 percent of children lived with parents who had never graduated high school, down from 16 percent in 2005. However, one in five Native American children and more than a third of Hispanic children live with parents who lack a diploma.
  • Teenagers seem less likely to engage in risky behavior. Only 6 percent are reported abusing drugs or alcohol—down from 8 percent in 2005—and the birth rate for teenagers continues to drop, to 29 out of every 1,000 births, down from 40 per 1,000 births in 2005.
  • In 2012, 93 percent of children had health insurance, up from 90 percent in 2008. Again, though, 12 percent of Hispanic children and 16 percent of Native American youngsters were not insured.
  • About a third of students are proficient in reading in 4th grade and in mathematics in 8th grade, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That's faint praise, but it's better than the 70 percent or more students performing below proficient in those subjects in 2005.

Early-Childhood Education

While early-childhood education has been a hot topic in State of the State speeches in the last few years, the Kids Count data show almost glacial improvements in most states. You can track the progress of individual states using the interactive chart below:

Frontrunners include Washington, D.C., where a city initiative incorporated preschool into the general K-12 funding formula. Watch how the District's pool of 3- and 4-year-olds out of preschool drops rapidly in the last few years (You can use the menu at the side to track other states' progress):

At a recent symposium on child poverty, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray said the city long had called for early-childhood education, but other budget priorities often bumped it from the agenda.

"People don't argue with the law; it just never gets done because it's not funded," he said. After changing the funding formula, he said, "Now 94 percent of 4-year-olds and 80 percent of 3-year-olds go to school all day."

Economic Instability

It's not just preschool that needs a little more financial stability; in spite of their educational and family progress, U.S. children struggle within deepening poverty in much of the country. Across the board, children's benchmarks of economic well-being fell or stagnated. Their parents were less likely to have stable jobs in 2012 than in 2008, and the families were more likely to shoulder a high housing cost.

The Kids Count report finds 23 percent of children lived in poverty in 2012, 4 percentage points higher than in 2005, and one in 13 children live in communities or even regions of concentrated poverty, as the map below shows:

poverty.JPG

"On several fronts, we've seen the difference that smart policies, effective programs, and high-quality practice can make in improving child well-being and longterm outcomes," said Patrick McCarthy, the president and chief executive officer of the Casey Foundation, "but we must do much more. All of us, in every sector—business, government, nonprofits, faith-based groups, families—need ┬áto continue to work together to ensure that all children have the chance to succeed."

Sources: Data for the map and chart above come from the Kids Count Data Book. The interactive chart comes from Education Week.

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