(December 2001) Is the well-being of America’s children good and getting better, or bad and getting worse?

Duke University sociologist and demographer Kenneth Land and colleagues answered that question in relative terms with a new Index of Child and Youth Well-Being, which charts the annual change in indicators of the life conditions of children and youth, and reports the results as a single number.

The researchers selected 28 national-level indicators from two sources: America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well Being, published annually by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics (1999, 2000), and Trends in the Well-Being of America’s Children and Youth, compiled by Child Trends and the Urban Institute and published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2000).

As a framework for their choices, Land and his colleagues used the seven areas of social life (“domains”) that quality-of-life researchers consider essential components of well-being (see table below). The change within each domain was calculated, and scores from the seven domains were combined to produce a single-number index.

“There are literally dozens of data series and indicators of various aspects of child and family well-being, but no well-accepted overall measure,” noted Land.

Social Indicators on Which Index Is Based

Domains of Well-Being Indicators Used*
Material Well-Being Median family income, parental unemployment, poverty, health insurance, single-parent households
Health Health insurance, obesity (ages 6 to 17), low birth weight, infant mortality rate, mortality rate (ages 1 to 19), activity limitations, parent reported rates of very good or excellent health, teenage pregnancy (ages 10 to 17)
Safety, Behavioral Concerns Victimization (ages 12 to 17), crime (ages 12 to 17), smoking (Grade 12), drinking (Grade 12), drugs (Grade 12), teenage pregnancy (ages 10 to 17)
Educational Attainment School achievement, reading and math test scores (averaged for ages 9, 13, and 17)
Place in Community and Educational Attainment Enrollment in preschool (ages 3 to 4), graduation rates from high school (ages 18 to 24) and college (ages 25 to 29), voting (ages 18 to 20), youth not working and not in school (ages 16 to 19).
Social Relationships Single-parent households, residential mobility
Emotional/Spiritual Well-Being Suicide rate (ages 10 to 19), religious service attendance and spiritual attitude (Grade 12)

*Some indicators appear in more than one domain; indicators cover children ages 0 to 17 unless otherwise indicated in parentheses.
Source: Kenneth C. Land.

Much the same way the Consumer Price Index (CPI) tracks the price fluctuations of a standard set or “market basket” of goods and services typically purchased by consumers, the Index of Child and Youth Well-Being measures change in a variety of areas of social life.

No individual consumer will buy all the goods in the average market basket in an individual year, but the CPI gives consumers “a general idea of what to expect in the market place,” Land explained. In the same way, no one child or family faces all the social conditions measured by the new index; rather, it is a signal of overall trends.

Compiling the index exposed the limitations of existing time-series data in several areas. Land and his colleagues found no direct measure of emotional and spiritual well-being, and therefore chose several indirect indicators: suicide rates and high school seniors’ rates of religious service attendance and ranking of the importance of religion in their lives. Because the area of social relationships was also without direct measures, the researchers chose the prevalence of single-parent households as a measure of family relationships and the rate of residential moves (known to be disruptive to children’s friendships) to represent peer relationships.

Given these and other limitations described in the report of the research findings, Land suggested that the index should be used cautiously, “interpreted as indicative of overall trends.” More experience with the behavior of the index over time as well as improvements in it are required before it can be given the credence of long-standing indexes such as the CPI, he said.


How are America’s children and youth faring? The answer depends on several factors.

Choice of indicators. The place in community domain saw the “largest and most steady increase,” reflecting increases in college and day-care enrollment as well as in teen employment. The material well-being domain fluctuated with the economy but reached a level in 1998 that was somewhat higher than in 1975. The safety/behavior concerns domain also fluctuated a great deal, reflecting trends in teenage childbearing; criminal behavior; and the use of cigarettes, alcohol, and illegal drugs. The health domain index declined beginning in the mid-1980s, pulled down by increases in the share of both overweight children and low birth-weight newborns.

Year chosen for comparison. Overall, child well-being in 1998 was slightly better than in 1985 but slightly worse than in 1975. The researchers estimate that overall well-being was 2 percent to 3 percent lower in 1998 than in 1975, but 1 percent to 2 percent higher in 1998 than in 1985 (see figure). Using either 1975 or 1985 as the base year, they found that conditions of life for U.S. children and youth “deteriorated fairly steadily” for the latter half of the 1980s, reaching low points between 1992 and 1994. An upturn began in 1994 that continued through 1998.

Average of Domain-Specific Indices of Child Well-Being, 1975-1998

Source: Kenneth C. Land.

The economy. All the domain-specific indices except health saw “sustained and substantial gains” between 1993 and 1998, coinciding with the “long-term economic expansion of the mid-to-late-1990s,” according to the report. Past economic recessions led to downturns in several domains. “With the economic recession that evidently is occurring in 2001, we can anticipate some deterioration or at least no improvement in many indicators of child well-being for the duration of the economic slowdown,” said Land.

Well-being by race. The index showed that the well-being gap between black and white children and youth grew 20 percent between 1985 and 1998. This growth reflects the increasing share of black children in single-parent families and their resulting low income levels. Black children’s low suicide rates and high religious attendance, compared with those of white children, acted as a “well-being advantage,” keeping the gap from growing even larger.

Benchmark. Using the best national level ever recorded for each indicator — for example, lowest mortality and highest college enrollment rates — the researchers calculated that the index could improve 23 percent from its level in 1975. Compared with the best levels recorded internationally, the index could rise 38 percent higher than in 1975. Land called these “tough yardsticks” that “give us an idea of how much these conditions can be improved.”

Paola Scommegna, former editor of Population Today, is a freelance writer.

For More Information

Kenneth C. Land, Vicki L. Lamb, and Sarah Kahler Mustillo, “Child and Youth Well-Being in the United States, 1975-1998: Some Findings From a New Index,” forthcoming in Social Indicators Research.

Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 1999 and 2000.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Trends in the Well-Being of America’s Children and Youth, 2000. Available on the Web at: aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/00trends/.