Two out of three Americans believe the nation is on the wrong track, but at least as far as children are concerned there is plenty to celebrate, as we learned at a Brookings conference on the 20th anniversary of welfare reform. Janet Currie, a professor of economics at Princeton, mined several national sources of data about the status of children and found an abundance of good news.
Five pieces of good news for children
- Lower infant mortality. In one analysis, Currie studied mortality rates for children from 0 to 19 years of age across U.S. counties grouped by poverty rates. She found that, between 1990 and 2010, there were substantial reductions in mortality across all counties. Equally impressive, she found major reductions for blacks and the greatest reductions in the poorest counties. Thus, even though serious gaps remain, the nation is making progress in reducing inequality in infant and toddler mortality rates.
- Higher high school graduation rates. There has also been progress on the education front. Between 1990 and 2010, children, including whites, blacks, and Hispanics, increased their rates of high school graduation.
- Reduced smoking and alcohol use. There have been reductions in alcohol use and smoking, both of which portend better health for children in the future.
- Lower teen birth rates. Improved future well-being is also certain to follow the historic decline in teen births, with the declines again greatest among minority groups. Since 1991, the overall teen birthrate has declined by well over half.
- Wider health insurance coverage. Perhaps most important is the dramatic increase in the number of children, especially poor and minority children, who have health insurance coverage. Health insurance coverage of pregnant women has also increased. Both Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which was enacted in 1997, contributed to this increased coverage of children and pregnant women.
Currie did not attempt to link these improvements to specific federal and state social programs. But there is a high likelihood that several programs run by federal, state, and local governments, as well as by the private sector, played a role in the improved health and well-being of children shown in her analysis.
In addition to Medicaid, programs that provide cash or in-kind supplements to low-income working families with children, especially the Earned Income Tax Credit and food stamps, greatly improved the ability of these families to purchase goods and services, including those that could contribute to their children’s development.
…but mind the debt
One dark cloud in this bright future is the nation’s relentlessly increasing debt. Increases in spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt are putting pressure on children’s spending. Under current law, spending on children as a share of all federal spending will decline by more than a fifth over the next decade, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute. Without more control over the big spending increases in the major entitlement programs, the remarkable progress being made by children, as well as the impressive lowering of the gaps between poor and rich as well as black and white children, will almost certainly be threatened.