- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

The overall well-being of American children has improved in the past five years, with both child poverty and teen birthrates falling dramatically, says a study released today.

Death rates for children of all ages have fallen since 1996, as have the number of teens who are high school dropouts, according to the 15th annual Kids Count Data Book, produced by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The 24 percent drop in the number of teens who give birth “really stands out,” said Kids Count coordinator William O’Hare.

“The fact that [the teen birthrate] has been going down for 10 years, in every state, in older teens and younger teens, and black and Latino teens, I think is a real positive note,” he said.

The Kids Count report is known for its state-by-state and national rankings on 10 indicators of child well-being in health, education, income and family structure.

Today’s report, which covers the five-year period from 1996 to 2001, shows strong improvement in eight measures of child well-being. Child poverty, for instance, fell 24 percent and the number of teens who are high school dropouts fell 10 percent.

The two measures that worsened were the numbers of low-birthweight babies and children living in single-parent homes, both of which increased by 4 percent.

This year’s report also highlights two segments of the youth population who are especially ill-prepared for adulthood.

In 2002, more than 3.8 million Americans — 15 percent of adults ages 18 to 24 — had no degree beyond high school and were neither working nor in school, Casey Foundation President Douglas W. Nelson said.

Many of these “disconnected youths” live in low-income neighborhoods and come to adulthood “unprepared, unsupported and dispirited,” Mr. Nelson said. Hundreds of thousands of these youths also are unwed parents or were raised in foster care or juvenile detention centers.

To address these problems, the new Kids Count report highlights two dozen programs for youths and families. Also, the Casey Foundation is hosting a youth summit today at George Washington University to discuss solutions for at-risk young adults.

Nationally, the Kids Count report ranked Minnesota as overall highest on the 10 indicators and Mississippi the lowest. Virginia was ranked 14th, Maryland ranked 27th and West Virginia was 42nd. The District was not ranked.

Other local details:

• The District improved in nine categories and cut its rate of teen deaths by accident, homicide or suicide by nearly half, to 126 deaths per 100,000 teens. In the 10th category — the portion of 16- to 19-year-olds who are high school dropouts — the District saw no change in its 11 percent dropout rate.

• Maryland improved in categories involving teen births, child deaths, poverty and parental employment, but worsened in four categories: The rate of high school dropouts rose to 9 percent; “idle” or nonworking, not-in-school teens rose to 8 percent; families headed by a single parent rose to 29 percent; and low-birthweight babies rose to 9 percent.

• Virginia improved in most categories. Exceptions were the slightly higher 7.9 percent of low-birthweight babies, and unchanged numbers of dropouts (8 percent) and “idle” teens (7 percent).

• West Virginia improved in six categories, especially child death rates and percent of children living in poverty. However, its rate of single-parent homes rose to 28 percent, low-birthweight babies rose to 8.5 percent, dropouts rose to 10 percent, and “idle” teens rose to 14 percent.

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