For Children, a Better Beginning
Study Finds Progress on Array of Issues From Birth to 10

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008

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 an almost 10 percent boost in children's well-being from 1994 to 2006. This overall improvement comes in spite of two significant negative trends: increased rates of childhood obesity and 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 C. 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, said 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 Census Bureau, and the Education and Justice departments. When figures were not available for some years, the report used estimates.

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 said possible reasons include better medical care and nutrition, mandatory use of car seats and safer playground equipment.

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 from 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?"

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 from 60.3 in 1994 to 73.2 in 2006.

To a lesser extent, more parents read to their young children. The percentages of children who were read to by a relative every day in the previous week rose from 57 percent in 1994 to 59.8 percent in 2006.

Parents are more engaged than in previous generations, said Takanishi, but "they can't do the job alone, and government policies can't do the job alone," she said. "It takes both."

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 called a significant amounts. Scores remained flat in science.

Several experts suggested that some of the good news was the result of a blend of research, policy changes and public health campaigns, as in cases of smoking during pregnancy and exposure to lead-based paint.

With lead, the study reported a striking decline in the percentage of children younger than 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 for 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.

Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-director of its Center on Children and Families, said the forces behind some of the trends were less clear. "This sounds like good news, but it's hard to say what produced it," Sawhill said. On any given topic, she said, there are multiple "crosscurrents" to consider.

She and others expressed great concern about some trends.

The prevalence of low-birth-weight babies increased in the 12 years. In 1994, 7.3 percent of live births were low-weight. By 2006, it was 8.4 percent, representing a 15 percent uptick. Such births often are accompanied by health complications and developmental delay.

The increase is at least partly the result of better technology to keep struggling infants alive, said Ramey of Georgetown. Other factors cited in the report were delays in childbearing and fertility drugs that lead to multiple births.

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 children ages 2 to 5, the figure climbed from 8.4 percent to 15.8 percent in the same period.

Said Cherlin, of Hopkins: "I think we now need to do for obesity what we did for smoking."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company