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Life is improving for U.S. children

/ Source: The Associated Press

From birth through high school, life is improving for American children. They are living longer, smoking less, taking more honors courses and having fewer babies of their own. But all is not well: More are being born dangerously little, and as they grow up, more are becoming too fat.

That's according to a report offering an overview of recent data on the health, economics and education of some 72 million children living in the United States. Compiled by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, the research comes from various federal agencies and programs.

The statistics are released each year in hopes of drawing attention to the problems and celebrating the successes.

Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, noted that teen pregnancy and gun violence both fell after intense public attention spotlighted the problems. The same can be true, he said, for problems such as child obesity.

“By calling attention to problems we can reverse trends,” he said.

The report, which offers the most recent data available in each measure, finds several trends moving in the right direction:

The child poverty rate, which has been falling since 1993, stayed steady overall but continued to fall for black children being raised by single moms. Forty-seven percent of these children lived in poverty in 2001, down from 49 percent in 2000.

The portion of children with health insurance remained at an all-time high of 88 percent.

The infant mortality rate, which measures deaths in the first year of life, continued to fall, with 6.9 deaths for every 1,000 births in 2000. The death rates for children between ages 1 and 14 also dropped. Teen deaths, which fell through the 1990s, were steady between 1999 and 2000.

Births to teenagers continued to fall, reaching an all-time low in 2001 of 25 births for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 17. The drop was particularly strong among black teens.

Teen smoking reached a new low, continuing a drop that began in 1997. Five percent of eighth graders, 10 percent of 10th graders and 17 percent of 12th graders reported smoking on a daily basis in 2002.

The portion of high school graduates who had taken honors level English courses increased to 34 percent in 2000, up from 29 percent in 1998. The portion taking advanced math, science and foreign language courses has been on the rise, but was steady between 1998 and 2000.

The portion of children enrolled in preprimary education rose from 42 percent in 1990 to 61 percent in 2000.

A few trends were headed the wrong way, the report found:

The portion of kids ages 6 to 18 who were overweight increased from 6 percent in the late 1970s to 15 percent in 1999-2000. Black girls and Mexican American boys were at particularly high risk of being overweight.

The portion of babies born dangerously small, less than 5.5 pounds at birth, continued to rise and hit 7.7 percent in 2001. Experts attribute the increase to more older women having babies and more multiple births.

Housing for more than one in three U.S. households with kids was physically inadequate, crowded or cost more than 20 percent of the household income. Fueled by rising housing costs, that rate rose from 30 percent in 1978 to 36 percent in 1995 and has been stable since.