WASHINGTON – Children in the United States are less violent and less likely to get pregnant than they were 30 years ago,according to Duke University researchers.
But they're also poorer,fatter and have failed to improve in math and reading tests.
Children today are only slightly better off than their parents were at the same age,said Kenneth C. Land,a Duke University professor who coordinated the study and joined a panel of experts at the Brookings Institution Wednesday for its release.
The Index of Child Well-Being follows trends in 28 areas of childhood development,beginning in 1975,and Land said certain areas need immediate attention from lawmakers and public policy makers.
“Health shows some deterioration because of the increasing levels of childhood obesity,” Land said. The study found obesity rates among children have tripled since the 1970s.
The welfare of children has improved just 4.5 percent from 1975 in areas such as education,poverty and health,according to the study,which was funded by the Foundation for Child Development,a national philanthropy for children.
While the study showed more children are living in poverty than 30 years ago,violent crimes committed by and against children have declined dramatically. According to the study,criminal activity among children ages 12 to 17 has dropped by more than 64 percent.
Scores on math and reading tests have remained stagnant,according to the study,despite a national focus to improve education in those areas.
Smoking and drug use among high school seniors also showed a steady decline in the study. The number of students who engaged in binge drinking,defined as five or more drinks,has dropped,from 36.9 percent in 1975 to 30 percent in 2004.
Land attributed the positive trends to community-based programs and an increase in parental involvement. “They may have been more willing to talk to their children about the negative consequences,” Land said
Researchers evaluated patterns in child abuse and neglect,Land said,but they were not included in the study because of statistical inconsistencies. “It's difficult to know how accurate they are,” he said.
Pregnancy rates among girls ages 10 to 17 dropped from 20 births per 1,000 girls in 1991 to 11 in 2003. But Sarah Brown,director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy,cautioned that the news was not all good.
The United States maintains the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the industrialized world,Brown said.
“I must remind us all that we still have a lot of work to do,” Brown said,pointing out statistics that show one out of every three girls in the United States will become pregnant before the age of 20.
Jeffrey A. Butts,director of the youth justice program at the Urban Institute,said the similarity of decreases in youth violence and teen pregnancies was striking,but in contrast to Land,he doubted that government mandates would influence the trends.
“I tend to be cynical to the idea these can be changed with policies,” Butts said.
He stressed that programs aimed at preventing violence,not harsher punishments for young criminals,would further decrease violence among young adults. Butts referred to the recent school shooting on Minnesota's Red Lake Indian Reservation,where Jeff Weise,16,killed nine people before taking his own life.
“There's a switch that goes off when kids commit these crimes,” Butts said. “We can't wait for that switch to go off because it's very hard to switch it back.”