Child Obesity in America
Alex Tehrani  /  Redux Pictures file
A beach scene in Chicago finds many overweight children playing in the sand and surf. The obesity rate among kids 6 to 17 has tripled since 1975, a new report finds.
updated 3/30/2005 12:01:09 AM ET 2005-03-30T05:01:09

In many ways, children today are doing better than their parents did. They take fewer drugs, commit fewer crimes and have fewer babies.

If they would just lay off the chips and soda.

A huge increase in obesity and increases in young people living in poverty and in single-parent homes have held back even greater progress in children’s overall well-being during the past three decades, according to the Foundation for Child Development.

The Child-Well Being Index, which tracks 28 separate measures, shows that since 1993 children have been engaging in less risky behavior. And while all is not rosy, the report says the overall well being of children is improving.

Among the findings:

  • The adolescent and teen birth rate has dropped from 20 births per 1,000 girls in 1992 to an estimated 10.9 births per 1,000 girls in 2004.
  • Binge drinking among high school seniors has fallen from 36.9 percent in 1975 to about 29.2 percent in 2004. Binge drinking is the consumption of five or more alcoholic drinks in one setting, and respondents were asked whether they had consumed such amounts within the past two weeks.
  • The number of youth offenders — and victims — has fallen dramatically since 1993. The number of youths age 12-17 who were victims of crime in 1994 stood at 120 per 1,000 children. The number of crime victims in that same age group is projected at about 45 per 1,000 in 2004.

Jeffrey Butts, director of the youth justice program at the Urban Institute, said the report speaks well of today’s teens.

“Maybe we have the next 'greatest generation' coming along here,” Butts said.

Kenneth Land, a professor at Duke University and author of the report, said a number of factors contributed to the improvement.

For example, the declining crime rate could be attributed to a better economy, the waning of the crack cocaine epidemic and an expansion of community policing, including more officers in schools.

Parents, too, have played a role in the gains.

Parents who grew up in the 1970s and early ’80s saw or experienced the effect of drug use and have been more assertive about controlling their own children’s behavior, he said.

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But Butts cautioned against linking trends to specific policy changes without further study. For example, he said that linking lower juvenile crime rates to funding police officers during the Clinton years sounded more like political speculation to him.

Butts also said improvements in such diverse categories as drug use, teen pregnancy and crime are hard to explain through government initiatives.

“I think it’s not so much a sign of policy-making as it is a fundamental cultural shift,” Butts said.

'We can do better'
In some categories, particularly health, America’s children aren’t doing so well. The obesity rate among children 6 to 17 has tripled since 1975 — from about 5 percent to nearly 16 percent.

Test scores measuring academic achievement have remained stagnant during the three decades studied — despite increases in per-pupil spending.

Also, the number of children 18 and under in single-parent households has increased over the past three decades. In 1975, about 17 percent of children lived in single-parent households. By 2003, that number had increased to 27.5 percent, with most of the increase occurring in the 1980s.

“We can do better and we are doing better, but not better enough,” said Fasaha Traylor, senior program officer at the foundation.

The Foundation for Child Development is a national philanthropy dedicated to helping children, particularly the disadvantaged. It is funded through an endowment provided in 1944 from the estate of Milo Belding, who was a silk merchant.

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