A Major New Report On Child Welfare In the United States

Since last Friday, our minds have been focused on children.  Those who lost their lives in the Newtown, Conn. tragedy on Friday.  Those at that school who survived.  Those at schools around the country, who now seem much more vulnerable to, of all things, an assault-rifle hit, even though they don’t live in a war zone.  Or even in a high-crime neighborhood.

Newtown is, I now know although I’d never heard of it before Friday, an upscale midsize town that serves largely as a so-called bedroom community for families like shooter Adam Lanza’s.  Lanza’s father Peter is an executive at General Electric in Stamford.  Lanza’s  24-year-old brother Ryan is an accountant at Ernst & Young in Manhattan and now lives in gentrified Hoboken.  One of the six-year-old victims was an especially sweet-natured girl of apparent (based on her last name) British Isles ancestry whose articulate father was teaching her Portuguese in his spare time from a well-paying job.

So a major new research report released today detailing the breathtaking increase in child poverty and surprisingly broad-based decrease in several measurements of child welfare in the United States since 2000 is, or at least until Friday was, not really—or rather, not directly—about the children of idyllic Newton and upper-middle-class bedroom communities like it.  But it is quite directly about huge swaths of other American children.  And its revelations should play a central role in the outcome of what had been, until Friday, the major ongoing news story of the month: the “fiscal cliff” chess game.

The report, called the 2012 National Child and Youth Well-Being Index (CWI), is this year’s edition of an annual report produced by the Foundation for Child Development (FCD), a national, private philanthropic organization, and the Child and Youth Well-Being Index Project at Duke University. 

The introduction explains that the FCD is dedicated to the principle that all families should have the social and material resources to raise their children to be healthy, educated, and productive members of their communities.  The annual report is a comprehensive measure of how children are faring in the United States, based on a composite of 28 key Indicators of well-being, grouped into seven Quality-of-Life/Well-Being Domains. These Domains are: Family Economic Well-Being, Safe/Risky Behavior, Social Relationships, Emotional/Spiritual Well-Being, Community Engagement, Educational Attainment, and Health.

The report explains that the CWI tracks changes in these Domains and Indicators, and in the value of the overall Index, compared to 1975 base year values.  But this year, for the first time, the report focuses on changes over the last decade, specifically the period from 2001 to 2011.  (It also includes some preliminary data from 2011.)

The two bottom-line broad findings derived from several specific ones are striking, I think, not so much independently—neither one surprised me—but instead juxtaposed with each other.  After consistent improvements during the 1900s, family economic well-being has deteriorated significantly and consistently since 2001; the deterioration began at the beginning of the decade, not at the beginning of the 2008 economic collapse, which of course did accelerate it.  Median family income decreased.  Secure employment has decreased.  The percentage of children living in poverty has risen substantially.  Pre-kindergarten enrollment, which rose during the -90s, has stalled. 

Yet that same period saw a fairly dramatic and consistent decline in what the report calls risky behaviors among teenagers and young adults as the decade progressed: “a dramatic reduction in the likelihood of teenagers being victims or perpetrators of violent crime, as well as substantial decreases in teenage childbearing, cigarette smoking, and binge drinking.”  (In discussing the crime rate, the report says it was down dramatically among teenagers even in 2011, but notes that that year’s teenagers were young when the major economic downturn began.) 

In other words, the blame-the-victim canard cannot be employed convincingly this time around.

We’re speeding headlong into a progressive populist, highly pragmatic, era.  The three-decades-long stranglehold of the right, with its deeply unpragmatic, ideology-above-all-else, credo, has been broken, finally, by that ideology’s arch enemy: unequivocal facts that enough people who vote can recognize for themselves.