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Report finds children making strides in health, education; obesity still a problem

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ America's children are less likely to commit a violent crime or become a victim of one, but more of them are living in poverty, according to the government's broadest measure of children's well-being.

A report released Friday by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics paints a mostly upbeat picture of how children are doing. The teen birth rate has declined steadily since 1991, hitting a record low in 2002. And the death rate has gone down for young people.

Still, it's not all positive news. America's children are more likely to be overweight than they were before and child poverty has inched up after several years of decline, according to the report that draws together findings from many federal agencies.

The reduction in teen births is one gain that should not be overlooked, said Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.

This is a key indicator of progress because teens who give birth are less likely to finish high school or to graduate from college than other girls their age, he said. Also, infants born to teen mothers are more likely to be of low birth weight, increasing their chances of blindness, deafness, mental retardation, mental illness and cerebral palsy.

Also on the positive side is education. In school, more children are taking advanced courses and studying a second language. At home, more parents are reading to their kids.

``We know that education is key,'' said Education Secretary Rod Paige.

America's youth also made progress in the area of crime. They were less likely to be victimized in a serious violent crime _ murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault _ or to commit one. In 2002, young people ages 12 to 17 were victims of a violent crime at a rate of 11 per 1,000, down from 15 per 1,000 a year earlier. The drop was even greater for youths 12 to 17 who committed violent crimes, 11 per 1,000 in 2002 compared with 19 per 1,000 in 2001.

Also, child mortality declined. In 2000, there were 18 deaths for every 100,000 children ages 5 to 14; a year later, the death toll declined to 17 for every 100,000 children.

However, the infant mortality rate increased slightly. Seven of every 1,000 infants died before their first birthday in 2002, up from a record low of 6.8 per 1,000 in 2001. Most of the increase occurred among infants less than 28 days old, with most in the first week of life.

Advances in fetal medicine are one reason the infant mortality rate increased. They enabled infants who once would have died before delivery to survive into the early newborn period, said Edward Sondik, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

Meanwhile, the number of overweight children has increased, reaching 16 percent between 1999 and 2000, up from 11 percent in the early 1990s and 6 percent in the late 1970s.

Child poverty also grew, hitting 11.6 million children in 2002, up from 11.2 million a year earlier. Looking just at children living in poverty who are related to the head of the household by birth, marriage or adoption, that number rose from 15.8 percent in 2001 to 16.3 percent in 2002, the report said.

This was the first significant annual increase in the poverty rate for related children since 1991, but it followed a period of decline from a recent peak of 22 percent in 1993.

In 2002, 73 million children under age 18 lived in the United States, and made up 25 percent of the population.
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