Study Confirms: Our Childhoods Were Easier Than Our Kids’ Childhoods


As families across America know all too well, the last decade has been brutal on our pocketbooks.

But while much of the analysis has focused on the effects of the Great Recession, a new study by the Foundation for Child Development reveals that the rapid decline in the well-being of American families and children began all the way back in 2001, at least six years before the Great Recession officially began.

The findings by this venerable nonprofit are significant because they show that the pain families and children have been experiencing recently is caused by structural problems in the American economy that go much deeper than some wild, irresponsible speculating with mortgage securities by some rogue traders in London. No, these are problems much more fundamental and long-lasting, and if they aren’t addressed the American future is going to be bleaker than many of us realize.

The Foundation for Child Development has been doing the National Child Well-Being Index every year since 1975, but this is the first time the group has decided to focus on changes over the past decade, since the start of the new century. The findings were devastating, and in fact show how much the nation is going backwards.

The likelihood of a child in the U.S. living in a family with an income below the poverty line was higher for the decade between 2001 and 2011 than it was in 1975. In other words, our children are living much more desperate and depressed lives than we were when we were their age 30 or 35 years ago. While many of us have suspected that, it was easy to dismiss those thoughts as just the human tendency to look at our childhoods through rose-colored glasses.

But the FCD report hands us disturbing proof: In fact, for most of us, our childhoods did have less financial stresses than do our children’s. How depressing is that?

“The significant economic improvements families made in the 1990’s have now all but disappeared,”says Kenneth Land, author of the report. “Economic insecurity is spreading widely across both middle class and low-income families. Not only are we seeing growing numbers of children in poverty, but children in middle class families are also losing ground.”

Not only is poverty up—the percentage of children living in families below the poverty line has increased from 15.6 percent in 2001 to 21.4 percent in 2011, with a full one-third of this increase coming before the recession—but there’s been significant change in other areas pointing to a decline in the lives of our children. For instance, there’s been virtually no increase over the decade in the percentage of children enrolled in PreK, and the percentage of children reading at grade level has gone up only slightly—from 29 percent of 4th graders at grade level in 2000 to 34 percent last year. If the numbers enrolled in PreK went up, the numbers reading at grade level in 4th grade likely would have seen a bigger jump, too.

“This collision course of rising economic insecurity and stalled growth in early childhood education places our youngest children’s development in jeopardy,” says FCD President Dr. Deborah Phillips. “We cannot just blame the recession. We have failed to make a national commitment to protect all children from poverty and economic instability, and to provide dependable support for effective early learning opportunities. The net result of this shortsightedness will be far greater cost to our economy and national well-being in the years ahead.”

With this evidence of the systemic problems in the American economy hitting low- and middle-income families hard, it makes it all the more comical that we have supposedly well-educated voices like University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia saying single mothers are to blame for the academic failures of black children. As we said last week, we’re gonna need the Lino Graglias of the world to do a little research before they open their mouths.

About the only area where the FCD study has good news to report over the past decade is in the area of violent crime. The rate of teenagers who were victims or perpetrators of violent crime plunged over the past decade, from 55.5 out of 1,000 in 2001 who were victims to 20.9 out of 1,000 in 2011. And the rate of teenagers who were violent crime offenders decreased from 19.3 per 1,000 in 2001 to 6.3 per 1,000 in 2011.

This particular stat is ironic, considering the fact that the nation is in the throes of grief over 20 children in Newtown, CT, being the victims of the ultimate violent crime, cold-blooded murder. But then again, even the Newtown tragedy would have been missed by this study—it was looking at teenagers victimized by violent crime, not first-graders.

I think the words uttered in Newtown by President Obama are quite relevant here:

“This is our first task, caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we’re meeting our obligations?…Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?… I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”

If we don’t change, it will be our children and our grandchildren who pay the price, as they grow up in a country that is steadily going backwards in its treatment of the young.


1. Univ of Texas Prof Says Single Moms to Blame for Black Student Failure
2. With Families and Kids Starving, Republicans Try to Slash Food Stamps
3. Newt Gingrich to Poor Black Mothers and Children: Pick Up a Broom, Lazy Asses
4. If Mitt Romney Doesn’t Care about the Poor, He Doesn’t Care about America’s Children

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


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