(December 2013) A new report about the well-being of girls in America, The State of Girls: Unfinished Business, was recently published by the Girl Scouts Research Institute (GSRI) in collaboration with the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

The report is the first comprehensive look at how girls in the United States are faring across five key areas of well-being: economic, physical health and safety, emotional health, education, and extracurricular activities. The main findings reflect the effects of racial and ethnic differences on girls’ status and are summarized in the report’s new “State of Girls Index."

Assessing the Future for Girl Leaders

Founded in 1912, Girl Scouts of the USA is the world’s largest organization dedicated to creating girl leaders, with 3 million active members and more than 59 million alumnae. Two-thirds of women in Congress, and almost every female astronaut, have been Girl Scouts. The GSRI, formed in 2000, is a center for research and public policy on the healthy development of girls.

The State of Girls shows that many girls do not get a fair start to their futures—especially due to disparities across different racial, ethnic, and income groups—and that many may face important challenges as they transition to adulthood.

But the report also highlights progress. Mark Mather, associate vice president for U.S. Programs at PRB and co-author of the report, says, “The positive messages struck me the most. Most girls are avoiding drugs and doing well in school. The teen birth rate is at an all-time low. There is often a sense that young people are moving in the wrong direction, but the data often show that the reverse is true. The report contains statistical indicators from many different sources, reflecting outcomes for girls during the 2009 to 2011 period; prior to The State of Girls, much of this data was dispersed among large national data sets.

The demographic profile of U.S. girls ages 5 to 17 has changed over the last 10 years. Among all girls, white girls are the largest group at 14 million, but Hispanic girls are now the largest minority group, with 6 million girls living in the United States, compared with nearly 4 million black girls, 1 million Asian American girls, and just over 200,000 American Indian girls.

Overall, white girls fare much better than black and Hispanic girls. Poverty and a lack of resources limit many Hispanic and black girls from accessing health care, educational opportunities, and the chance to explore constructive extracurricular activities.

Economic Well-Being

Across the indicators surveyed, economic security stands out because of the large racial/ethnic gap (see table). Poverty rates among Hispanic, black, and American Indian girls are more than twice the poverty rates of white and Asian American girls.

Higher poverty rates are closely linked with living in single-parent families—especially among black girls. In the case of Hispanic girls, economic security is also compromised by the high proportion of girls living without health insurance: 17 percent of Hispanic girls ages 5 to 17 lack health insurance, compared with 11 percent for black and 7 percent for white girls.


Percentage of Girls Ages 5 to 17 in Poverty, by Race/Ethnicity, 2010

Percent
Total 20.5
White* 11.8
African American*
37.2
Asian* 13.7
Hispanic 32.9
American Indian* 33.6
Two or more races* 21.1

*Non-Hispanic.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2011.


Physical Health and Safety

In a survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, girls report a fairly healthy diet and reasonable levels of physical activity. However, one-third of girls are overweight. Overweight and obesity rates are highest for black (44 percent) and Hispanic girls (41 percent). White girls have fewer health risks compared with black and Hispanic girls across several key measures, including the teen birth rate. A higher share of black and Hispanic girls become teen mothers, compared with white girls: In 2009, among girls ages 15 to 17, there were about 41 births per 1,000 Hispanic girls, compared with 32 births per 1,000 black girls and 11 births per 1,000 white girls.

Education

Asian American girls fare the best on education measures, followed by white, multiracial, black, and Hispanic girls. Dropout rates among American Indian girls (14 percent) and Hispanic girls (16 percent) are especially high, reducing their potential employment and earnings. The dropout rate for Asian American girls, at 3 percent, is less than half the national average of 7 percent.

Emotional Health

Adolescent girls are more than twice as likely as boys to have major depressive episodes, but their symptoms often go unrecognized. Hispanic girls fare better than both black and white girls in terms of emotional health: Hispanic girls report fewer emotional and behavioral difficulties compared with other groups, and are less likely to be bullied. About 9 percent of black girls report being threatened with harm, compared with 6 percent of white girls and 6 percent of Hispanic girls.

Extracurricular Activities

White girls are slightly more likely than black girls and Hispanic girls to participate in extracurricular activities. Black girls are disadvantaged by the longer periods of time they spend watching television: Almost two-thirds of black girls (57 percent) spend three or more hours a day watching television, compared with 23 percent of white and 41 percent of Hispanic girls.

Roadmap for Cultivating Girl Leaders

The State of Girls aims to provide evidence for a roadmap to address girls' needs in policies and programs. Girls believe in changing themselves, their communities, and the world at large, and they express interest in learning from the successes and failures of women in leadership roles. Although there are gaps in the data, The State of Girls can jump-start the future for girls. According to Mather, "This report provides a starting point, but we need to track these indicators over time to make sure that girls succeed and become happy, healthy, productive adults."


Heidi Worley is a senior writer/editor at the Population Reference Bureau.