The Kids Are Alright, Except For Being Fat

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Blake Neff Reporter
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The average American child continues to be safer, happier and fatter than 20 years ago, according to new data from the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.

The Center has produced its annual Child and Youth Well-Being Index (CWI) since 1999, and uses data going back to the 1970s.The report seeks to assess the overall amount of “suffering,” or lack thereof, endured by American children as they grow up. Such suffering is indicated by various measures of crime, education, health, and positive life choices.

For the most part, the report finds, American children have benefited from the continued slow recovery from the sharp recession of 2008-09. The Center calculated the overall CWI for children aged 6-19 as being 102.9 in 2013, up .7 from 2012.

While that’s still short of the peak year of 2007 when CWI hit 103.2, it’s also drastically better than any score from the 1980s or ’90s, when soaring crime rates, high rates of drug abuse, and other social dysfunctions kept CWI down in the low 90s. The rising CWI indicates that despite the publicity of outlier events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, life for American children is generally improving, and substantially better than in decades past.

Improving conditions are due to a wide variety of social trends. The teen birthrate has continued to fall, with 12 births per 1,000 girls aged 15-17 representing the lowest rate ever in Duke’s data set dating back to the 1970s. Tobacco use is at its lowest level ever as well, with only 16 percent of high school seniors lighting up in a given month. Despite concerns about alcohol consumption among youth, binge drinking among high school seniors is close to a record low as well. College and high school graduation rates are both at record highs.

Even the obesity rate shows reasons for optimism. While the number of overweight children aged 6-19 remains far higher than in decades past at about 18 percent, the number is at least no longer growing, and has instead remained constant for several years.

Not everything is splendid, however. Violent crimes committed against youths ages 12-19 bottomed out in 2010, with 26 children out of 1,000 suffering a violent crime in a given year. Since then, victimization rates have risen for three consecutive years, reaching 49.9 per 1,000 in 2013. That’s still much better than the dreadful early 90s, but is nevertheless a reason for concern going forward.

Additionally, after falling in the mid-2000s, the percent of children growing up in a single-parent household has risen for the fourth straight year, and is approaching a record high at about 28 percent. Children in single-parent homes are at a higher risk for almost every dysfunction imaginable, from suicide to poverty to becoming single parents themselves.

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