- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

One of the most useful legacies of the Clinton administration stems from its insistence that the federal government regularly compile and publish its most important “numbers” on American children.

In other words, give the nation an easy-to-read, annual report card on how its children are doing, physically, economically, academically and socially.

The newest issue, “America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2009,” has just come out. As always, there’s good news and bad news, but here’s a quick history.


In 1997, President Clinton issued an executive order formally establishing the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. He required it to produce an annual report about children.

Before Mr. Clinton issued the order, it was difficult to organize the mountains of child-related data produced by federal agencies. Educational statistics were kept in one “silo,” poverty data were in another, family-structure data were in yet another. Ditto for health insurance rates, birthrates, immunization rates, child mortality rates, housing data and substance use.

With national information so squirreled away, the nation could never get a clear, complete picture of children’s well-being - or whether Capitol Hill’s grand schemes were helping or hindering them.

The federal forum’s 13th report compiled data from 22 agencies, compared with nine in 1997. This year’s report has data on 40 indicators, compared with 25 in 1997.

The report, found at http://childstats.gov/ americaschildren, shows several improvements from last year: More children have health insurance (89 percent); fewer children ages 5 to 14 died as a result of injury (seven per 100,000); fewer 10th-graders regularly smoked (6 percent) or binge-drank (16 percent); and fewer babies were born prematurely (12.7 percent), had low birth weight (8.2 percent) or died before their first birthday (6.7 per 1,000). Fourth- and eighth-graders scored higher in math and reading, and more young adults completed high school (89 percent).

Another welcome change was a steep drop in the number of youths ages 12 to 17 involved in serious violent crimes. The youth-offender rate fell from 17 per 1,000 in 2005 to 11 per 1,000 in 2007, a “very large difference in a very positive direction,” said Edward J. Sondik, director of the National Center for Health Statistics.

On the downside, the number of children living in poverty ticked up (18 percent), while the number living with at least one employed parent ticked down (77 percent) - and these data “predate the current economic downturn,” said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The number of preschoolers who have a family member read to them regularly also fell alarmingly - from 60 percent in 2005 to 55 percent in 2007 - which means more children will be less prepared for school. And, of course, far more children were born to single mothers - in 1980, there were 29 births per 1,000 single women; by 2007, it was 53 births per 1,000.

Having data like these in one place, year after year, is invaluable if you believe in the management adage that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

When it comes to why we need to “manage” our children, perhaps the authors of the 1997 report said it best: “The future of our Nation - our democracy, our economy and our social fabric - depends upon how we now protect and nurture our children.”

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.