(March 7, 2002) A new study on state-level changes in the well-being of America’s children finds that while conditions for them improved overall in the last decade, the child poverty rate remained virtually unchanged, and the proportion of children in single-parent families grew dramatically.

The report contains the first of its kind state-by-state information drawn from U.S. Census Bureau data, which compares a wide variety of key indicators of children’s well-being between 1990 and 2000, with state rankings and comparisons to the national average.

The report found substantial differences among the states. Of the 10 measures of child well-being used in the study, eight showed improvement nationally. On every measure except two — percent of kids in single-parent families and percent of kids in households without a telephone — states varied widely in child outcomes.

In South Dakota, for example, eight of the 10 indicators showed improvement, while another Midwestern state, Indiana, improved on only one. California improved on eight indicators while a neighboring state, Arizona, improved on only two indicators.

The report, Children at Risk: State Trends 1990–2000 (www.aecf.org/kidscount/c2ss/), uses data from a new Census Bureau survey that is likely to become the backbone of the federal statistical system over the next decade. The data come from 1990 decennial census data and from a prototype of the American Community Survey called the Census 2000 Supplementary Survey (C2SS).

Published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Population Reference Bureau, Children at Risk provides a sweeping look at state trends in child well-being over the past decade. The study will help state policymakers understand how the dynamics of child well-being in their state compare to other states or the nation as a whole.

Information from the C2SS is compared to findings from the 1990 Census to measure changes in 11 measures (see Table 1). The study found that the poverty rate for kids increased in 16 states between 1990 and 2000, despite a decade of unparalleled prosperity. And while the proportion of children living in single-parent families increased in every state between 1990 to 2000, it is important to note that most of the increase occurred during the first half of the decade.

Table 1

National Changes in Child Well-Being, 1990 to 2000

Indicator 1990 2000
Children living in poverty 18% 17%
Children living in single-parent families 24% 30%
Children living in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment 29% 28%
Children living with a household head who is a high school dropout 22% 19%
Children living in low-income working families 19% 22%
Children living in households without a telephone 8% 4%
Children living in households without a vehicle 9% 7%
Children who have difficulty speaking English (ages 5-17) 5% 6%
Teens who are high school dropouts (ages 16-19) 12% 11%
Teens not attending school and not working (ages 16-19) 10% 9%
Children living in “high-risk” families 13% 12%

An Improving Picture

“The 1990s produced brighter futures for many of the nation’s 72 million children,” says William O’Hare, national coordinator of the Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT project. “But sustaining those advances and extending them to the 12 million kids still in poverty will be an enormous challenge given the recent economic downturn.”

Mark Mather, a policy analyst with the Population Reference Bureau and one of the study’s authors, notes that “the national numbers mask enormous differences among the states. The C2SS data allow us to track state-level changes more accurately than ever before.”

For example, child poverty rates in Colorado and South Dakota fell by 33 percent between 1990 and 2000, while the child poverty rate in Alaska increased by 30 percent. Other measures show similar disparities.

This assessment of changes in child well-being is particularly timely because many of the social, economic, policy, and demographic changes that took place in the United States in the 1990s had important implications for children and families throughout the country:

  • Welfare reform encouraged self-sufficiency and work and ushered in a new relationship between the government and poor families;
  • Increased immigration during the last decade produced a national population where one-fifth of all children are now immigrants or children of foreign-born parents;
  • The percentage of mothers in the labor force reached an all-time high in the 1990s; and
  • The number of children in the United States grew by more than 8 million during the last decade — the largest increase since the 1950s.

Children Living in Poverty

Even though the 1990s witnessed the longest postwar period of economic expansion, the child poverty rate was not much lower at the end of the decade than at the beginning (see Table 1). And in many states, such as Alaska, Rhode Island, Washington, and Oregon, the child poverty rate actually increased from 1990 to 2000.

Single-Parent Households

Much of the debate leading up to the Welfare Reform Act in 1996 centered on efforts to strengthen marriages and discourage childbearing outside marriage, in part because children in one-parent households are more likely to live in poverty and do poorly in school than those living with a married couple.

The percent of children living in single-parent families is the only measure of the 11 examined here that increased in all 50 states between 1990 and 2000. The percentage of children living with only one parent rose by only 13 percent in New Jersey compared to a 60 percent increase in North Dakota.

It is important to note, however, that all of the increase between 1990 and 2000 occurred in the first half of the decade. At the national level, the percent of children living in single-parent families has actually decreased slightly since 1996.

Table 2

Children in Poor Families

Largest Decreases in Child Poverty Rate (1990 to 2000) Largest Increases in Child Poverty Rate (1990 to 2000)
Colorado –33% Alaska +30%
South Dakota –33% Rhode Island +21%
Minnesota –31% Washington +21%
Michigan –22% Oregon +20%
Kansas –21% District of Columbia +19%

Table 3

Children in Single-Parent Families

Smallest Increases in Percentage of Children in Single-Parent Families (1990 to 2000) Largest Increases in Percentage of Children in Single-Parent Families (1990 to 2000)
District of Columbia +11% North Dakota +60%
New Jersey +13% Oregon +48%
Minnesota +18% Alaska +45%
Colorado +19% West Virginia +45%
Maine +20% New Hampshire +44%