Universal Children’s Day is celebrated November 20 by the United Nations and is intended to promote the welfare of the world’s children. As this day nears, I find myself thinking more about the condition of life for children in the U.S. With all sides of the political and social spectrum debating whether the family is in steep decline or doing just fine, it is hard to sort through the rhetoric to discover what really is the well-being of America’s children. Answering that question is also difficult because the answer greatly depends on two other questions: Whose children are we comparing? And, when are we comparing?
For example, if I, a white female, had been born in 1900, I would have had a life expectancy of about 51 years. There was a good chance my grandparents would not have lived long enough for me to have experienced a three-generation family, and I would have had a one-in-four chance of experiencing the death of one of my parents by the time I reached the age of 15. Only 70 percent of children were enrolled in school. If I had belonged to a poor or working-class family, school would not have been an option. Instead, I could have expected to begin working at as young as 10 or 11, often in factories alongside my father who himself worked 10 hours a day, six days a week. And my home, even if I were not poor, would have lacked running water, a flush toilet, central heating and a refrigerator.
In contrast, if I were born in 2003, I could expect to live 80 years. The child poverty rate in the year of my birth was 17.6 percent, down from over 45 percent in 1949. I could hope to be one of the 91.4 percent of children enrolled in school. My mother would almost certainly work for pay, as 7 out of 10 mothers are now in the labor force, and I would have four chances in 10 of experiencing the divorce of my parents.
So, is a child’s life better in 2003 than in 1900? Almost certainly. Children today live longer, are better off financially and are generally healthier, better educated and less likely to experience the death of parents and grandparents during their childhood.
But not all children have benefited equally from the medical, economic and social changes occurring in the last 100 years. Poor and minority children continue to have greater infant mortality rates, lower literacy rates and lower life expectancies. An African American boy born in 2003, for example, could expect to live only 69 years, rather than the 75 years for a white boy born at the same time. Compared to higher-income children, poorer children are five times more likely to only be in fair or poor health and three times more likely to lack health insurance. And while children’s poverty rates have fallen since 1949, they are on the rise once again, with minority children especially hard hit.
Are our families and their children in deep decline? No. Are they doing just fine? No. While tremendous progress has been made to improve the lives of children in the U.S., much remains to be done. Just as reformers at the turn of the century channeled their energies into social activism to improve the quality of children’s lives, so too is action needed now to strengthen both two-parent and one-parent families as well as both first-time and blended families. A few possible strategies include expanding the earned income tax credit, shifting the focus of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) so that it attempts to actually curtail poverty rather than just reduce caseloads, increasing federal investment in affordable housing, improving the availability and quality of child care and expanding health coverage by broadening eligibility.
Surely a nation that is spending an estimated $10 billion a month in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the assertion that such action is needed to improve the safety of Americans, could choose to spend some of that money to improve the everyday existence of America’s children. Perhaps, then, any celebration of a Universal Children’s Day in the U.S. will be a much more meaningful gesture.
Stacy Hammons, Ph.D., chairs the department of sociology at Fresno Pacific University.