Children's Issues: Background

"We have nothing to be proud of. One in six children in the United States-12.1 million-still live in poverty. In fact, children are more likely to be poor today in this time of unprecedented wealth than they were 20 or 30 years ago. The overall poverty rate in 1999 was almost three percent higher than in 1969. Nearly 11 million children are without health insurance, 90 percent of whom have working parents. These are not acts of God. They are our moral and political choices as men and women, citizens and leaders."
- Marion Wright Edelman, Director, Children's Defense Fund

Marion Wright Edelman, director of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), painted a bleak picture of the state of America's children in testimony before the House Budget Committee on August 1, 2001. In the world's wealthiest nation, 12.1 million children - one out of every six children - live in poverty. Despite the stereotypes, more than three out of five poor children in America are white. Poor children are more likely to be hungry, live in unsafe or overcrowded housing, go to school tired, enter school behind their peers, and be at greater risk of abuse and neglect. Even though the number of families on welfare has been halved since the passage of the 1996 welfare reform bill, many of the families who left welfare remain trapped in poverty. Seventy-eight percent of all poor children live in working families, including 3.8 million poor children who live in families where at least one person works full-time all year round. Too many low-income families do not receive the food stamps, Medicaid, child care, and other government social services for which they are eligible. More than 40 percent of children living in single-parent households are poor, but only one-quarter of these children receive child support.

Children in low-income families face incredible obstacles in their daily lives. There are some dangers, however, that reach beyond economic status and threaten all of society's children. Environmental hazards, gun deaths, and education are just a few of the issues which affect all our children.

Child Abuse and Neglect
An estimated 7,900 children a day are reported to public child welfare agencies as abused and/or neglected. In 1998, over 900,000 children were confirmed victims of child abuse and neglect. Young children are most at risk for being abused and neglected. Infants represent the largest proportion of victims. Almost 40 percent of the victims are under the age of six. Twice as many children are victims of neglect (55 percent) as are victims of physical abuse (25 percent). Another 12 percent are recorded as victims of sexual abuse, six percent as victims of emotional maltreatment, and 13 percent as other forms of maltreatment.

In many states, the child protection system is being stretched to its breaking point without the capacity to respond fully to the complex need of troubled families. Currently 568,000 children live in foster homes, group homes, and child care institutions. Even though Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (AFSA) in 1997 to promote permanent families for children, inadequate staffing, administrative barriers, and lack of resources have left these children waiting. The average length of stay for children in foster care is two years and nine months. An additional two million children live with grandparents or other relatives because their parents cannot inadequately care for them.

Child Care
Three out of every five young children (13 million children, including over seven million infants and toddlers) are in child care. Seventy-eight percent of mothers with school-age children are in the work force, and more than half of these women earn at least half of their household income. Despite the enormous numbers of children in child care, the quality of child care facilities is often poor. A recent Children's Defense Fund study found that 40 percent of the child care centers serving infants were of poor enough quality to jeopardize the children's health, safety, or development. While in some child care situations providers look after a small number of children, keeping them stimulated and satisfied, in too many others, one provider will look after six or seven or more children, leaving both the provider and children stressed and unhappy. Only 10 states have child care licensing standards that meet the recommendations of national early childhood organizations for staff/child ratios in centers. Child care workers are often not well-trained - most states do not require them to have any training - and tend to be under-paid, earning an average of $15,430 per year.

Parents are often unable to chose better child care situations for their children because of the high prices of child care. Full-day child care easily costs $4,000 to $10,000 per year - at least as much as college tuition at a public university. Yet, more than one out of four families with young children earns less than $25,000 a year, and a family with both parents working full-time at the minimum wage earns only $21,400 a year. Even though some child care subsidies are available for low-income families (see below), both funds and the availability of childcare programs are severely limited. Currently, no state serves all families eligible for assistance under federal guidelines. Nationally, only 12 percent of eligible children who need help are getting assistance.

There are some child care assistance programs available for low income families. Unfortunately, most of these programs are not adequately funded and only one in 10 families who need child care assistance receives any.

The Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG), passed in 1990, was merged with child care funding for families receiving welfare as part of the 1996 welfare law. It is the primary federal child care program for low-income families. States must spend at least four percent of their CCDBG funding on child care quality, and providers receiving CCDBG funds (excluding certain relatives) must meet required health and safety standards. The program also provides funding for early childhood development and before- and after-school child care services.

Title XX/Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) provides a flexible source of funding that enables states to meet the unique needs of their most vulnerable populations, primarily low-and moderate-income children and people who are elderly or disabled. Title XX supports a broad range of social services including day care for children. The funds are used to support state and local programs as well as non-profit programs and services. States are fully responsible, within the limitations of the law, for determining the use of their funds.

The Head Start Program, created in 1965, helps prepare low-income children to enter school. It provides comprehensive services for over 800,000 children including education, nutrition, health and social services during part of the day for most recipients. A number of local Head Start programs are coordinated with other services to provide all-day care.

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers is a program that provides funding to help schools stay open longer, provide recreational and learning-based activities, and generally provide a safe place for children after school. Funds are distributed in the form of grants to inner city and rural public schools. The program may involve community organizations and independent service providers.

Dependent Care Tax Credit (DCTC): The dependent care tax credit provides tax relief to tax payers with children under the age of 13 to offset some of the cost of child care. Beginning in 2003, the tax credit can be used to offset up to 35 percent of child care expenses up to $3,000 (up from $2,400 now) per year for a family with one child and up to $6,000 (up from $4,800) per year for a family with two or more children.

According to the Census Bureau, almost seven million children are left without adult supervision after school. Without such supervision or structured activities, young people are more likely to be at risk of dangerous behavior such as smoking, drinking, sex, or crime. Teens are also more likely to be victims of violent crime in the hour after school lets out than at any other time. In addition, violent juvenile crime peaks between the hours of 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Access to structured activities reduces the likelihood of delinquency and encourages positive youth development.

Preschool may be the key factor to academic success for disadvantaged children. According to many education experts, preschool is more important than smaller class sizes, better-prepared teachers, and greater accountability in determining a child's future success. A national review of thirty-six studies on the long-term impact of early childhood education programs found that low-income children who participate in early childhood education programs were more likely to succeed in school, have better behavior, and eventually graduate from high school. At the same time, they were less likely to be held back or placed in special education classes. According to the Child Care Action Campaign, recent findings on early brain development confirm that the critical foundations for learning and school achievement are laid well before schooling traditionally begins. Despite this connection, only 45 percent of low-income three- to five-year-olds are enrolled in preschool programs, in contrast to 73 percent of middle-income children in that age group.

Ninety percent of America's children attend public schools. Serious concerns have been raised about the condition of public education in the United States. Too few students - especially disadvantaged and lower-income children - achieve at high levels. Only 32 percent of fourth graders read at or above the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) proficiency level. The majority of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders exhibit only a basic level in their writing abilities, displaying only partial mastery of the skills and knowledge tested. In math skills, American students perform at a level far behind other industrialized countries.

Over the next decade, 2.2 million new teachers will be needed to replace retiring teachers, to accommodate increasing numbers of children, and to reduce class size. Unless action is taken soon, there will not be enough qualified teachers in the classroom.

There are great disparities between school districts across the nation. America's wealthiest school districts spend 56 percent more per student than do the poorest districts. Children in the poorest school districts are least likely to have fully qualified teachers and most likely to lack basic supplies. This inequality of resources results in disparities in achievement levels and leaves millions of poor children and children of color lagging behind.

Finally, school buildings themselves are in disrepair. Three-quarters of public schools in America need new construction or modernization. Approximately 43 percent of schools reported one environmental problem and about half listed at least one building feature problem. In addition, at least 2,400 new public schools will be needed by 2003 in order to accommodate rising enrollment and to relieve overcrowding.

​For more information, please visit RAC's Education issue page

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing one teacher and 12 students and wounding 23 others. One year earlier in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Mitchell Johnson (age 13) and Andrew Golden (age 11) murdered four middle-school students and one teacher as they exited the building during a fire alarm. The school shootings that occurred in Littleton and Jonesboro (and 18 other cities since 1996 alone) were tragic atrocities. However, these shootings are not isolated incidents. Each and every day, 9 children and teenagers are killed by gunfire in the United States. Approximately 58 percent of young people killed by gunfire are victims of homicide. One-third of gun-related deaths are the result of children and teenagers committing suicide. The American Journal of Public Health found that 1.4 million households with 2.6 million children had firearms stored either unlocked and loaded or unlocked and unloaded but with ammunition nearby. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of firearm deaths among children under age 15 is almost 12 times higher in the United States than in 25 other industrialized nations combined. Between 1979 and 1998, 563 American military personnel were killed by hostile action. During that same period, 2,042 children under the age of five were killed by firearms, almost four times as many. Guns pose a serious threat to the health and well being of children.

For more information, please visit RAC's Gun Control issue page

Health Insurance
Nearly 11 million children in the United States do not have health insurance. In 1997, the federal government attempted to address this problem by creating the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP). S-CHIP is a source of funding to provide health insurance for those uninsured children whose families' income is too high for Medicaid but is insufficient to provide for private insurance. In most states, children in a family of four earning up to $35,300 a year (200 percent of the federal poverty level) would qualify. S-CHIP gives block grants to states, which then have flexibility in creating programs to target families in need - some states expanded Medicaid coverage, while others created separate programs. Thus, no two states' programs are exactly alike. These plans generally include regular checkups, immunizations, eyeglasses, doctor visits, prescription drug coverage, and hospital care. The block grant funds are available to the states on a matching basis and are determined by a formula based largely on the individual state's number of uninsured children below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The allotted funds which states do not use are redistributed to other states which have fully spent their allotments. For the S-CHIP program to be even more successful, however, states need to do a better job of getting kids enrolled, which means reaching out to parents who are eligible. Over 6 million children who are currently eligible for Medicaid or S-CHIP remain uninsured.

Not enough doctors and dentists participate in programs like Medicaid due to inadequate payment rates and cumbersome billing requirements. Often children with insurance cards do not receive preventative screening tests and services necessary to keep them healthy, and those children with special health care needs commonly do not receive the comprehensive services they need. Families with children in managed care plans are sometime prohibited from designating a pediatrician as their primary doctor or have trouble getting access to pediatric specialty care. Children face significant health risks from asthma, tobacco use, lack of immunization, and environmental hazards. With the right policies and programs, all these risks can be reduced and unnecessary disease and death can prevented.

For more information, please visit RAC's Health Care issue page

Low-income families with children encounter great difficulty finding affordable housing. Workers earning minimum wage cannot afford the "fair market rent" for a home. For example, a mother of two in Maryland would have to work 103 hours a week at minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment at "fair market rent." In addition, the supply of affordable, low-rent housing continues to decline; from 1997 to 1999, the number of housing units that low-income renters could afford dropped by 1.14 million. Furthermore, 3.6 million children live in households that have "worst case housing needs," meaning that they have to spend more than half their income on rent and/or live in severely substandard housing. Although the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides subsidized housing vouchers for low-income families, waiting lists for these vouchers are often closed. Those who do get on the waiting lists may wait years for a voucher. Additionally, because of the recent housing boom, it is increasingly difficult to find landlords to accept the vouchers. More than 70 percent of very low-income renters receive no form of housing assistance.

For more information, please visit RAC's Housing issue page

Juvenile Justice
Juvenile crime rates have been declining since 1994. Less than 10 percent of juvenile offenders have committed serious violent crimes. Most youthful offenders are grappling with economic, educational, and social hardships, and an estimated 50 to 75 percent of delinquents have a diagnosable mental illness. However, states are increasingly treating youthful offenders as adults, thereby subjecting them to adult sentences and adult prisons.

The juvenile justice system is plagued by disproportionate minority confinement (DMC), with the proportion of minority juveniles detained far exceeding the proportion these groups represent in the general population. According to a 1996 federal study, although African-American youth aged 10 to 17 constitute only 15 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 32 percent of delinquency referrals to juvenile court, 41 percent of juveniles detained in delinquency cases, 46 percent of juveniles in secure corrections facilities, and 52 percent of juveniles transferred to adult criminal court after judicial hearings. As the statistics indicate, the overrepresentation of minority youth becomes greater deeper into the system, so that an African-American youth is two times more likely to be arrested and seven times more likely to be placed in a detention facility than a white youth. Some attribute this large discrepancy to the fact that young people of different racial groups commit different types of crimes. But according to a recent report by Building Blocks for Youth, African-American youths are more than twice as likely as white youths to be held in a detention facility for similar offenses. In 1993, Hispanic youths were in custody on average 112 days more than white youths for the same offenses and African-American youths were held 61 days longer than white youths. Further, African-American males are six times more likely to be confined in state juvenile facilities for crimes against persons than their white counterparts, four times more likely for property crimes, and an astonishing 30 times more likely to be detained in state juvenile facilities for drug offenses than white males. African-American youth are also much more likely to end up in prison with adult offenders. Overall, 82 percent of youth charged in adult courts were minorities.

In 1988, after hearing extensive testimony from such groups as the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and the Coalition for Juvenile Justice concerning the significant overrepresentation of minority youth in state juvenile justice systems, Congress amended the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) to require the states to address the disproportionate confinement of minority juveniles in secure facilities. As more states are cooperating by assessing disparities in their own systems, it is clear that DMC remains a serious problem requiring an ongoing and continuous effort to move us closer to a juvenile justice system which treats every youth fairly and equitably, regardless of race or ethnicity.

For more information, please visit RAC's Crime/Criminalissue page

Mental Health
Approximately 20 percent of American children and adolescents, 11 million in all, have serious diagnosable emotional or behavioral health disorders, ranging from attention deficit disorder and depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Of these children, only one in five receives treatment. Between 43 percent and 70 percent of children in the child protection system have mental health problems severe enough to warrant intervention. The effects of mental illness on children, especially untreated disorders, are devastating. Children's mental disorders persist into adulthood, with 74 percent of 21 year olds with mental disorders having had mental health problems during their childhood. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people 15 to 24 years of age and is the sixth leading cause of death for children aged 5 to 14.

Millions of children lack sufficient nutrition in the United States. Thirty-one million people (including 12 million children) lived in households that were unable to afford adequate and nutritious food in 1999. Among these families, over 3 million children were regularly hungry. Children who are hungry cannot concentrate in school and consequently fall behind their peers. Children need regularly nutritious meals in order to develop physically, emotionally, and intellectually. In recent years, the food stamp caseload has declined much more sharply than the level of child poverty. Analyzing food stamp usage from 1994 to 1998, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed that the decline was concentrated among households with incomes low enough to qualify for food stamps. Additionally, food stamp applications and renewal forms are time-consuming and difficult for parents who cannot take time off from work without risking their jobs.

For more information, please visit RAC's Economic Justice issue page