Event Summary: Measuring Child Well-Being: A New Index

March 24, 2004

The Brookings Institution, in cooperation with the Foundation for Child Development (FCD) and Duke University, today released new findings on how children are currently faring and how their status has changed in recent years. The Child Well-Being Index, which was developed by Duke Professor Kenneth Land, assesses trends in seven quality-of-life areas for children and young people (aged 1 to 19) from 1975 to 2002. The seven “domains” include mortality, poverty and suicide rates, drug use, educational test scores, health insurance coverage, and crimes committed by children.

The study offers mixed news on the overall health and well-being of American children. Child well-being, as measured by the index, has improved five percent since 1975. Children are more safe and connected to their communities than thirty years ago, and teenage birth rates have substantially declined. However, more children are obese, living in poverty, and attempting suicide than they were in 1975.

The report shows that overall child well-being steadily declined from 1981 to 1994 because of poor economic conditions, surges in drug use and crime, and greater numbers of single parent households. Only since 1999 have analysts seen improvements in family environments and a recovery in child well-being that exceeds 1975 base year levels (when data was first collected), thanks in part to the economic boom enjoyed during the 1990s.

Panelists were on hand to discuss the new findings, and they made it clear that obesity was one of the primary problems facing American children. “In many cases junk food is cheaper and eating well is the result of the financial well-being and the resources they have,” Representative Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) said.

Land, a professor of Demographic Studies and Sociology, saw a correlation between the rise in obesity and the decline of family structure. “Prepared foods has replaced that old tradition of family dinners,” Land said, adding that “when kids are not in practice, they go home and play video games and sip on soda water and eat snacks.”

Cardin called on schools to place greater emphasis on nutrition education. Representative Dave Camp (R-Mich.) suggested another method to teach proper nutrition.

“I don’t think you can ignore the emotional and spiritual side,” Camp said, “because if you’re going to have the self-discipline to conduct your life in a certain way, there has to be some emotional and spiritual stability there.”

Cardin said the new index indicated that policymakers ought to focus on “material well-being,” a domain that covers economic status and educational achievement. The new index suggests that, within this category, poverty rates have fallen, family income has risen, and more children are covered by health insurance than in 1975.

“Material well-being affects all of the other factors used in developing this index,” Cardin said. Legislators could help improve material well-being, according to Cardin, by creating new job opportunities, extending unemployment insurance, raising the minimum wage, improving foster care, and enacting welfare reauthorization.

Camp wasn’t completely convinced. “Throwing money at the problems isn’t necessarily going to do it,” he said. “If we did spend a lot more, that doesn’t necessarily impact children in the same way that some of these other programming efforts might, such as requiring work in terms of welfare, or having children stay in school longer.”

Land expected recent progress in the well-being of children to continue, but he tempered the panel’s optimism by noting the recent advances should have been even more pronounced given recent developments in education, health, and social programs. Land also worried that history could repeat itself, suggesting that the nation’s current economic course threatens to repeat the recessions experienced in the 1980s that helped spawn the 13-year drop in child well-being.

“We need to realize that if this period continues for five or ten years,” Land said, “we may be setting up another generation of young adults who will rear children with similar problems.”

Rachel Jones, a science reporter at National Public Radio, believes that the media has a responsibility in advancing children’s causes.

“As long as the definition of ‘news’ is crime, war, political strife, tension, and negativity clashing,” she said, “the well-being of children is never going to be in the top ten—that is the reality of the situation. We have to get to the point where we realize that these issues are not just on the periphery. They feed into the well-being of our country and our society as a whole.”

Ruth Zambrana, an adjunct professor of family medicine at the University of Maryland, said that a child’s well-being is inherently tied to the well-being of the family, and called for a national living wage, universal health insurance, and improved community infrastructure. “We cannot focus on children without focusing on family,” she said. “When we strengthen families, we strengthen children.”