Prospects for America’s children: Three cheers, three fears

Out on the long presidential campaign trail, every candidate will say something like “children are the future of this nation.” So what are the prospects for our kids? The latest Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation provides a mixed picture.

Three pieces of good news

  1. Better health. There have been improvements across a range of child health outcomes, including reduced child and teen deaths and substance abuse, lower rates of low-birthweight babies and fewer children without health insurance.  Our own Pathways to the Middle Class report highlights how some of these factors can critically impact a child’s chances at upward mobility later in life.

  2. Housing costs easing. While housing costs remain a serious problem that needs to be addressed further, the percentage of children living in households with a high housing cost burden (defined as spending on housing costs each month exceeding 30 percent of income) dropped to 36 percent in 2013. Rental and mortgage costs are one of the biggest expenses families face and can place a heavy burden on families.

  3. Teen births down. Births to teenage mothers have dropped by 35 percent since 2008 and continue to fall rapidly. A host of negative long term effects have been linked to teen childbearing, so this decline is good news for opportunity in the future.

Three areas of concern

But it is far from all good news:

  1. Most preschool-aged children are not in preschool. 54 percent of children were not attending preschool in the years 2011-2013: troubling given the evidence that quality early education can be critical in determining later life success. According to recent research, preschool absenteeism is associated with both lower cognitive and lower social-emotional skills.
  2. More children living in high poverty areas. The share of children living in high poverty areas (defined as census tracts with poverty rates of 30 percent or more) has grown in recent years to 14 percent. Recent research from Raj Chetty and others has shown the impact of poor neighborhoods on life chances, especially during adolescent years.
  3. More children in single-parent families. More children live in single parent households: the rate was 35 percent in 2013. Children living in single-parent families are more likely to perform poorly on critical measures and have greater exposure to significant risk factors. While any causal link is far from clear, it may be the indirect effects of stable marriages, like more time and monetary resources, which facilitate positive child outcomes.

One additional note: these national metrics mask wide variation between states, and the clustering of positive child outcomes in specific geographic areas. Our Brookings colleague Bill Frey has found that the states experiencing the fastest growth in youth population are showing the worst outcomes for kids across a range of important metrics, from high school graduation to health insurance coverage.

In terms of breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, a focus on childhood is obviously critical. The 2015 Kids Count report shows that there has been real progress, but also that there is plenty of work to do to give our children a better future.

Note: The Annie E. Casey Foundation supports the work of the Center on Children and Families.