'80s saw deterioration in life for U.S. children, study finds


WASHINGTON -- The 1980s were "a decade of deterioration for children" as increasing numbers of them came to live in poverty, died before adulthood, were sent to jail or gave birth out of wedlock, according to a study released yesterday.

"America's fate depends on how we treat our children today. We won't be ready unless we reverse these trends from the 1980s," said Judith Weitz, coordinator for the Center for the Study of Social Policy.

The study, called "Kids Count," looked at public education, health care and other services. It ranked the states and the District of Columbia on the basis of eight factors, ranging from low birth weight to high school dropout rates to teen-age deaths.

Vermont ranked best; the District of Columbia worst. Maryland was 33rd.

Nationally, at the end of the decade, slightly more than 24 percent of all infants had no prenatal care, 20 percent of all children lived in poverty, and 19.5 percent were not covered by health insurance.

There were improvements in only two areas:

* Every state's infant mortality rate improved slightly from 1980-88, "but black babies are still twice as likely to die as whites," Ms. Weitz said.

* In 48 states and the District of Columbia, the death rates for children aged 1 to 14 declined.

The following were among the negative trends the report identified:

* The rate at which children were jailed rose by 41 percent, from 118 per 100,000 in 1979 to 166 per 100,000 in 1987.

* The proportion of children living in poverty rose by 26 percent, from 16 percent in 1979 to 20.1 percent in the 1985-1989 period.

* The violent death rate for teen-agers rose by 12 percent, from 62.4 per 100,000 in 1984 to 69.7 per 100,000 in 1988. Two-thirds of the 12,696 deaths recorded in 1988 were due to accidents, with the remainder almost equally divided between homicides and suicides, said Dick Bell, a spokesman for the study's sponsors.

* The proportion of teen-agers giving birth out of wedlock rose by 10 percent, from 7.5 percent in 1980 to 8.2 percent in 1988.

Ms. Weitz declined to blame the problems on Reagan-era budget cuts. "We all should be held accountable," she said.

There was no obvious correlation between children's status and the wealth of a state or even such factors as school spending, Ms. Weitz said. For example, Vermont's per capita income of $16,371 ranked 25th. Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, chairman of the National Commission to Prevent Infant Mortality, said "throwing money at" the problems isn't the answer. The Center for the Study of Social Policy is a non-profit research organization that seeks to promote change by analyzing social policy.

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