(July 2009) Each year, researchers at Duke University release the Child Well-Being Index (CWI), meant to assess the overall well-being of children in the United States. The index is calculated by the Foundation for Child Development and Youth Well-Being Index Project at Duke, headed by Ken Land. The CWI tracks 28 key indicators that cover various aspects of life from federal data grouped into seven domains (family economic well-being, health, safety/behavior, education, community connectedness, social relationships, and emotional/spiritual well-being).

The CWI does not promote any theory or political interest. By weighing each domain equally, the CWI is able to look at aspects of U.S. children's lives objectively. "If you ask experts in education, they typically would say that their indices should be weighted more heavily. Those in health would say 'No, no, it's health that's important'; those in economics would say 'No no, it's well-being indicators', and so on. So what equal weight methodology does is minimize those disagreements," says Land.

The 2009 CWI finds that progress in the quality of life for America's children has fluctuated since 2002 and began a decline in 2008. This year, for the first time, the project issued a special focus report that looks at the possible effects of the current economic recession on children through 2010, with a particular emphasis on the effects on young children.

How Are U.S. Children Faring?

The CWI uses the base year 1975 to compare relative child well-being. It shows that children's well-being improved dramatically in the late 1990s and sporadically in the 2000s. In the seven years between 2000 and 2006, the CWI was consistently higher than in 1975. However, despite the improvement, the CWI in 2006 had only increased by 2 percent over the 1975 value. Four domains improved from 2000 to 2006—family economic well-being, safety/behavior, educational attainment, and community connectedness—while three of the domains deteriorated—health, social relationships, and social/spiritual well-being. The 2007 value was the highest yet measured by the CWI, although it is based on only nine of the 28 indicators. The improvement is attributed to increased pre-kindergarten enrollment at ages 3 and 4 and a decline in violent crime between ages 12 and 19.

In terms of health, while indicators on infant, child, and adolescent mortality and smoking, drinking, and drug use improved since 1975, the overall health domain has deteriorated largely because of greater child and adolescent obesity, which has been increasing since the 1970s. In the United States, cheap food is often synonymous with unhealthy food, so as families' incomes become strained, obesity rates can increase.

Economic Recession, Poverty, and Pressures on Public Services

Local communities and states across the country are facing cutbacks in tax revenues and many programs are being cut accordingly. The report notes that these cutbacks will have two types of impacts. Primary impacts are direct and will mostly be seen in the family economic well-being domain through unemployment of one or both spouses, income stagnation, loss of health insurance coverage, and so on. The 2009 CWI projects declines through 2009 and 2010 with a recovery in 2011. The CWI estimates that the percentage of children living in poverty will peak at 21 percent in 2010, a figure comparable to previous economic recessions. The number in poverty is expected to rise from a recent low of 12.3 million in 2006 to 14.9 million in 2010.

Indirect impacts are also studied. "Based on the past historical experience—three recessions since 1975—we project that the rate of overweight children will have a bump upwards...due in part to parents substituting lower-price, higher-carb foods for healthy foods," says Land. There also may be "some potential increases in the safety and behavior indicators including violent crime offending and victimization in the ages 12 to 17 [and] some increase in detachment of youth ages 16 to 19 from major social institutions." However, there are positive indirect impacts as well. Young adults are more likely to complete their college education due to the lack of job opportunities in the economy. According to the CWI report, many students may feel it is simply better to enroll or stay in school.

The report notes the wide geographic and racial/socioeconomic diversity of these impacts. "Some states are particularly hard-hit," says Land. He notes the examples of Michigan, with double-digit unemployment; states such as California, Nevada, and Florida that have been particularly affected by the housing crisis; and unlikely states such as Connecticut, where people who previously worked on Wall Street are now facing economic hardships. Some communities and states will face unemployment rates of 12 percent to 20 percent, rates that reflect economic depressions, not recessions. In addition, the report notes that low-income black and Latino children are especially susceptible to shifts in the economy; when the economy is doing well, their well-being gains are more dramatic, and when the economy slumps, they are more affected since more black and Latino children live in poverty.

Challenges Facing Young Children

A couple of years ago, the CWI compared trends across three age groups: 0 to 5, 6 to 11, and 12 to 18, based on data from the 1990s.The CWI project was able to track pre-kindergarten enrollment and test scores based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, typically given during third grade. "We found that increases in enrollments in pre-K generally were leading indicators for increases in test scores at age 9...investments in pre-K are paying off," says Land. A large body of research indicates that early childhood education pays dividends throughout a person's life. James Heckman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, has estimated that for every $1 invested in early childhood, $17 is saved.

However, because of budget cutbacks in pre-K funding from states and school districts, along with losses in family income, the report anticipates declines in pre-K education. For many vulnerable children from families affected by the economic crisis, later success in school is in jeopardy. The effects of losing out on pre-K education affects not just the later success in school for children themselves, but future generations and society as a whole. The Foundation for Child Development warns that "children who are not involved in high-quality pre-K programs today will become below-basic performers on fourth, eighth, and twelfth grade tests in the future," and "investing in pre-K/early learning...can make a difference not only in children's educational outcomes, but also in their life prospects."

Looking Forward

According to the CWI report, the current economic recession will have a variety of negative impacts on U.S. children. It is likely that there will be reversals of decades-long improvements for children: "Virtually all the progress made in family economic well-being since 1975 will be wiped out." Young children and children from disadvantaged families will be particularly hard-hit. However, with continued investment in early childhood education and support for families, many of the negative impacts can be mitigated. To ensure continued attention and support for U.S. children, the CWI urges awareness of these potential effects of the recession among citizens, parents, and political leaders.


Eric Zuehlke is an editor at the Population Reference Bureau.