"It's a good time to be a child in America," said Tommy Thompson, secretary of Heath and Human Services, about a new statistical report on children. Which, given the actual statistics, is like saying, "Murray has only a little bit of cancer."
In other words, things ain't great, but they could be worse.
The good news, according to the federal America's Children 2001 report, is that the United States has experienced a slight decline in child poverty and America overall is enjoying greater family wealth.
Children growing up in high-income homes, for example, doubled between 1980 and 1999 to 29 percent. (High-income means at least $68,116 annually for a family of four.) This reduction in poverty is owing to another statistic reported as "good news": more parents are working.
The bad news is that children are still smoking, drinking and using drugs too much and are not performing significantly better academically. Although teen pregnancy rates are down to 29 births per 1,000 among girls ages 15 to 17, I can't bring myself to order balloons. The (ital) however (end ital) part of this cheery news byte is that 88 percent of those teen births were to unmarried girls, up from 62 percent in 1980.
Youth rates of smoking, drinking and drug use, meanwhile, remain steady:
- 21 percent of seniors say they smoked daily in the previous 30 days;
- 30 percent of seniors reported having at least five drinks in a row in the previous two weeks; and
- 25 percent of seniors reported using illicit drugs in the past 30 days.
In the dubious news category, though it wasn't reported as such, more children than ever - 26 percent - are living in single-parent homes. Although the increase is attributed somewhat to the increase in single-father homes - from 2 percent in 1980 to 4 percent in 2000 - the vast majority of these one-parent homes are headed by a female.
The report mentioned these family trends as casually as one might note that the District of Columbia is experiencing a curious increase in the roach population, except that the latter news would evoke an official response of Chandraesque proportions. The fact that a quarter of American children are growing up mostly fatherless should not ignite a patriotic swelling of pride.
Poverty figures also are also cheerfully misleading. While the report said that only 8 percent of children from married-couple families experienced poverty in 1999, 42 percent of children in single-mother families suffered poverty during the same year. In black female-headed families, about two-thirds lived below the poverty line between 1980 and 1993; by 1999, just over half were in poverty. It's a wonder Thompson wasn't trucking in cases of Dom Perignon.
Meanwhile, the fact that more children have two working parents, as noted in the report, is not necessarily good news to children who, as a result, may feel isolated or abandoned. As Constance Hilliard, a history professor at the University of North Texas, recently wrote, material gains even in two-parent families don't necessarily translate into emotional well-being.
Although Hilliard was criticizing what she considers the myth of the superior nuclear family, her conclusion that material indulgence is often a poor substitute for emotional support and psychological stability was exactly right.
You have to wonder what Thompson's comment might have been had this report been released under a Democratic administration. The continuing erosion of the traditional American family - and the well-substantiated connection between father-absent homes, poverty and adolescent social pathologies - surely would not have escaped his notice.
But that would have been yucky bad news, and we can't have that. Besides, pointing out that single-mom households are not ideal settings for children would, how shall we say, "negatively impact" the Republican National Committee's current push to attract female voters to the Republican party.
Even slight improvements in children's status are worth our optimistic attention, but not at the expense of reality. The reality is that while some American children may have more materially, the high rate and negative effect of divided families means that emotionally, it's not such a great time to be a child in America.