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STATE of the nation's children _ better, but not perfect

Updated:

WASHINGTON (AP) _ By several standards _ lower child poverty, more working parents, greater family wealth _ life is getting better for American children, the government said.

But scholars pointed to persistent lags in trends that affect children under 18. Test scores and other measures of student achievement remained flat. Bad habits like smoking and drinking persisted at about the same pace as before, according to the America's Children report, an annual look at government statistics.

Government agencies boasted of short-term gains. In recent years, teen pregnancies, youth violence and deaths declined from earlier in the 1990s, the figures showed.

The annual study, released Wednesday, is compiled by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics using information from 20 federal agencies.

``It's a good time to be a child in America,'' said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who promised more money to deal with youth problems.

From 1980 to 1999, the share of children growing up in high-income homes doubled from 16.8 percent to 29 percent, according to the annual look at federal child statistics released Wednesday. A high-income home is at least four times the federal poverty level; in 1999, that meant at least $68,116 in annual income for a family of four.

``These findings represent important victories for children and adolescents,'' said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, an HHS agency that specializes in child research.

However, U.S. youngsters statistically marched in place by many other measures. For instance:

_In 1980, 21.3 percent of high school seniors said they smoked daily. By 2000 the percentage of seniors smoking regularly was 20.6 percent.

_Eighty-six percent of American youth had finished high school or earned diploma equivalents in 1999. In 1980 that figure was 84 percent.

``It's a cautionary tale of progress,'' said Margaret Simms, research director of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that specializes in racial issues. ``Economic expansion is not enough to put all families on equal footing.''

Household incomes have risen for all groups of children, including minority children; but many of them are in families without proper health insurance coverage, she said.

Researchers followed health, economic and education trends among America's 70.4 million children under age 18. The report is based on the most recently available statistics, primarily from 2000, 1999 or 1998. Some parts of the report compare recent trends to those from 20 years ago. It is collected by the forum, a federal and private research partnership created by the government in 1994.

``Some of the declines we are seeing are off crazy peaks,'' said Douglas Besharov, a welfare expert at the American Enterprise Institute. In the 1980s, he said, crack cocaine increased social problems among youth such as violence, substance abuse, unplanned pregnancies.

He also said steep rises in divorce rates affected the stability of children across all cultural and economic lines. For about a century, four in five U.S. children lived in two-parent households. By 2000, the report said, for the first time, a quarter of children lived in single-parent homes, mostly with mothers.

Scholars said increased personal wealth is good and important news, but it doesn't automatically translate into good health or education.

Some figures showed that, over time, the general health of children, the share with chronic sicknesses and the percentage who received proper immunizations, changed little.
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