WASHINGTON – Fewer teenagers are having babies or dropping out of high school since the start of the decade, but slightly more live in poverty with parents who don't work year round.
A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation charity found that measures of health and income for children and teens are no longer improving as much as they did in the 1990s. Instead, children are "treading water," said foundation President Doug Nelson.
"We're not talking about a catastrophe or the bottom falling out of anything," Nelson said. But, he added, "We've still got to do some poverty-rate reduction. We've got to make improvements from those 2000 numbers."
The findings were released Tuesday as part of the annual Kids Count report on the health and well-being of children and teens. The report measures each state's progress on 10 statistics, including infant mortality, poverty rates, single-parent families and babies born with low birth weights.
States in the Northeast and upper Midwest scored the best. At the top: New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Minnesota and Iowa. Southern states did the worst: Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Louisiana was ranked 49th, even before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast last year.
"We're a really poor state," said Judy Watts, president and chief executive of Agenda for Children, an advocacy group in Louisiana. "Everything starts to unravel as poverty takes a grip on children and families."
Watts said conditions for children are even worse since the hurricane, even with help from the state and federal governments.
"There's certainly been help, but I do not believe it has been adequate," Watts said.
Nationally, there were improvements in eight of the 10 measurements in the 1990s, when the economy was booming, government-sponsored health care for children was expanded significantly and welfare reform helped move hundreds of thousands of families from welfare to work.
One issue that has continued to improve: teen pregnancies. Teenagers' birth rates fell from 48 per 1,000 females in 2000 to 42 per 1,000 in 2003.
"We see a continuing decline in births to teenagers, but we don't see any decline in the percent of children in single parent families," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
"We've done a pretty good job of convincing teenagers that they should wait until they are older, but we're not doing as good a job of convincing them they should wait until they are married to have children," he said.
Horn said President Bush and Congress approved a program that will spend $100 million a year for the next five years providing couples with marital and premarital education and counseling to help them develop and sustain marriages.
The Casey foundation uses the most recent statistics available from the Census Bureau and other government agencies for its report, now in its 17th year.
The U.S. improved in four areas from last year, declined in three and stayed the same in three. Most of the changes were small.
Among this year's findings:
—The percentage of high school dropouts decreased from 11 percent in 2000 to 8 percent in 2004.
—Both the child death rate (ages 1 to 14) and teen death rate (ages 15 to 19) fell slightly from 2000 to 2003.
—More than 13 million children, about 18 percent, lived in poverty in 2004, a slight increase from 17 percent in 2000.
—One third of America's children lived in homes where none of the parents had full-time, year-round jobs in 2004. That is a slight increase from 32 percent in 2000.
—The portion of babies born weighing fewer than 5.5 pounds increased by less than a percentage point, to 7.9 percent, from 2000 to 2003.
There was no change since the start of the decade in infant mortality, percent of children in single-parent families and percent of teens neither working nor attending school.