Author Archives: Regina Leidy

Increasing Autism Rates and Children with Disabilities

New estimates show that 1 in 88 American children have been identified as having autism spectrum disorder, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said [yesterday], marking an increase of more than 20 percent since the last time such data were collected.” (Education Week, March 29, 2012)

Recently, an article in Pediatrics highlighted the employment and earnings challenges for families with children with autism. In their research, Cidav, Marcus, and Mandell found that mothers of children with autism earn 35% less than the mothers of children with another health limitation and 56% less than the mothers of children with no health limitation. They are 6% less likely to be employed and work 7 hours less per week, on average, than mothers of children with no health limitation. These families face a significant economic burden. (See Pediatrics , 129(4), April 2012)

An upcoming volume of the Future of Children, “Children with Disabilities” (out at the end of April 2012), shows that over the past several decades, predominant childhood disabilities have shifted away from physical disorders toward mental health disorders. Moreover, research shows mental health disorders in childhood to have larger impacts than childhood physical health problems, on average, in terms of adult health, years of schooling, participation in the labor force, marital status, and family income.

In terms of economic costs, the volume’s chapter, “The Economic Costs of Childhood Disability” states, “Childhood disabilities entail a range of immediate and long-term economic costs that have important implications for the well-being of the child, the family, and society.” When looking at direct, out-of-pocket costs incurred as a result of a child’s disability; indirect costs, often involving employment, incurred by the family; and long-term costs associated with the child’s future economic performance, the negative effects appear to be much greater, on average, for children with mental health problems than for those with physical disabilities.

A key goal for society today is to devote resources to preventing, diagnosing, and managing mental health conditions in children to improve their functioning and trajectories. In fact, as the volume shows, the costs of not doing so may be greater than the costs of many interventions to prevent and reduce childhood disability.

Public discussion of childhood disability, by the media, parents, scholars, and advocates alike, tends to emphasize particular causes of disability, such as autism, asthma, cystic fibrosis, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. In the upcoming volume of the Future of Children, “Children with Disabilities,” we focus not on individual disabilities, but rather on cross-cutting themes that apply more broadly to the issue of children with disabilities.

The volume will be published at the end of April. Please watch our website for this informative volume. You can also join our listserv if you would like to be notified by email when the journal becomes available.

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High-Quality Childcare: Good for Kids, Good for Moms

“Balancing the competing needs of work and family life is a challenge for most households, but the difficulties may be greatest for households with young children, defined here as newborns through age five. Parents in many of these families struggle to find sufficient time both to fulfill work responsibilities and provide the intensive care that young children require.” The Future of Children: Work and Family

The first difficult and very important work and family decision a parent makes is who will care for the child while the parent is working. Choosing childcare is one of the largest stressors that a parent faces when returning to work.

A new study in the journal Child Development finds that high-quality early child care can have a significant impact on children’s wellbeing, and is important for mothers as well. High-quality child care is not about drilling children in educational facts, but more about low student to teacher ratio, age appropriate books and toys, and teachers who are attentive to the children and their developmental needs.

“Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at data from more than 1,300 children whose care settings were evaluated at various intervals from the time they were a month old until they turned 4 ½. Their mothers were interviewed too. Those moms whose kids were cared for early on in “high-quality non-parental care” settings–either in day care centers or in others’ homes–were more likely than mothers who cared for their kids themselves or sent them to low-quality day care to be involved in their children’s schools starting in kindergarten… Robert Crosnoe, a professor of sociology in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin who led the study, notes that “children make a smoother transition to school when families and schools are strongly connected.”

(Time Healthland- February 15, 2012)

As noted in the Future of Children’s Work and Family volume, formal (center- or school-based) early childhood education and care received immediately before kindergarten appears to promote school readiness. Children, particularly those who are disadvantaged, who attend prekindergarten in the year before formal schooling begin that formal schooling with better math and reading skills, although some of these gains may be transitory or offset by later compensatory education that targets less-prepared children. Head Start participation is also associated with better dental care and overall health as well as with reductions in obesity.

Despite these positive findings, however, the volume is careful to note that, when taken together, research findings related to early childhood care and education are ambiguous, due in part to the high variability in services provided and the difficulty of determining which outcomes are of key interest (for example, cognitive test scores at school entry versus long-term educational and developmental outcomes.)

The one finding that remains certain from the current research base is that quality of care matters. High-quality care mitigates any negative consequences of early childhood care and education and enhances its benefits.

For more on this issue, go to the Future of Children Work and Family chapter on “Policies to Assist Parents with Young Children.”

Prekindergarten Programs Affected by Recession

“Children who attend center care or preschool programs enter school more ready to learn, but both the share of children enrolled in these programs and the quality of care they receive differ by race and ethnicity. Black children are more likely to attend preschool than white children, but may experience lower-quality care. Hispanic children are much less likely than white children to attend preschool. The types of preschool that children attend also differ. Both black and Hispanic children are more likely than white children to attend Head Start.” (The Future of Children: School Readiness: Closing Ethnic and Racial Gaps)

Public funding of early childhood care and education, particularly Head Start, has made some progress in reducing ethnic and racial gaps in preschool attendance. Magnuson and Waldfogel, in their chapter in the School Readiness volume of the Future of Children, conclude that “substantial increases in Hispanic and black children’s enrollment in preschool, alone or in combination with increases in preschool quality, have the potential to decrease school readiness gaps.”

Although we know how beneficial it is for children to attend preschool or prekindergarten, the expansion of these programs has slowed down and in some cases has halted or reversed due to budget cuts. “Roughly a quarter of the nation’s 4-year-olds and more than half of 3-year-olds attend no preschool, either public or private. Families who earn about $40,000 to $50,000 annually face the greatest difficulties because they make too much to qualify for many publicly funded programs, but can’t afford private ones, said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.”

According to Pre-K Now, state moneys for prekindergarten more than doubled nationally to $5.1 billion, while at the same time access increased from a little more than 700,000 children to more than 1 million over the past decade. But in the 2009-10 school year, state budget cuts began affecting the programs.

Despite these challenges, early childhood learning advocates are encouraged by a recent federal emphasis on improving early childhood programs. As noted in the Huffington Post’s piece Public Pre-Kindergarten Programs Slowed, Even Reversed, By Recession, “nine states were awarded a collective $500 million in grants last month to improve access to and the quality of early childhood programs for kids from birth to age 5. A month earlier, President Barak Obama announced new rules under which lower-performing Head Start programs will compete for funding,” In an effort to improve the quality of pre-kindergarten programs. (Huffington Post 1/17/12)

For more on education policies that impact children, go to the Future of Children website:

Physical Activity Promotes Health in Mind and Body

Anti-obesity ads in Georgia (Strong4life), featuring overweight, unhappy children, have caused much controversy. The ads are aimed at awakening parents to the stark reality of obesity with such messages as “Some diseases aren’t just for adults anymore,” and “Being fat takes the fun out of being a kid.” While the ads do a great job of pointing out the problem, Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter, a pediatrics professor at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School points out that “There is no mention about what a parent can do other than to say ‘stop sugarcoating the problem’.” There is also a worry that the ads will create self-confidence problems for overweight children. Dr. Miriam Labbok states, “Blaming the victim rarely helps. These children know they are fat, and they are ostracized already.” (NY Daily News January 2, 2012.)

The Obesity Coalition is among those who oppose the ads, writing in a letter to Georgia Children’s Healthcare Alliance that the “messaging of the campaign is purely fuel for the fires that represent the nonstop onslaught of teasing and bullying that America’s children, affected by childhood obesity, face daily.” Yet Maya Walters, a teenager who appeared in one of the ads states “I think it’s really brave to talk about the elephant in the room. It’s very provocative and makes people uncomfortable, but it’s when people are uncomfortable that change comes.” (NY Times Motherload Blog January 3, 2012)

Teaching kids to make healthy food choices and encouraging physical activity can help kids avoid obesity. According to a recent research study published in the journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, “While physical activity is known to improve children’s physical fitness and lower their risk of obesity, new research suggests that it may also help them perform better in school.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also found that out of 50 studies, more than half showed a positive association between school-based physical activity and academic performance. ( ABC Good Morning America, January 2, 2012)

Another study by Dr. Kristen Copeland from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Ohio, published in Pediatrics shows that “daily physical activity is essential for preschool age children both for preventing obesity and for their development- their physical development and their cognitive development…When kids are running, skipping and learning to ride tricycles, they aren’t only exercising their bodies, they’re also exercising their minds.” Copeland suggests that parents get involved to help shape child care practices around physical activity. (

The Future of Children journal on Childhood Obesity suggests the following:

  • Involve both children and parents in obesity-prevention programs, typically conducted within schools, child care centers, and after school programs.
  • Improve nutritional and physical activity standards within schools.
  • Limit children’s exposure to advertising.
  • Improve preventive care and treatment for obesity and related conditions.

For further reading about obesity in children, please visit the Future of Children.

Disadvantaged Young Men and Families

“The statistics are sobering: more than 23 million children, or 1 out of every 3, live apart from their biological fathers; males are now less likely than females to graduate from high school and to enter and graduate from college; there is long-term decline in the percentage of adult males who have jobs; and only about 60 percent of young minority males have a job. The nation is in a crisis regarding the development and economic productivity of young males, especially disadvantaged males.” (Brookings Institution)

On December 5, the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution hosted an event focused on young disadvantaged males in the United States and the intervention programs that might best serve them.

Using research from a recent issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, edited by Timothy Smeeding, Irwin Garfinkel, and Ron Mincy, speakers showed that few teenage and young adult males benefited from the economic recovery of 2003-2007 and men under thirty were more adversely affected than any other demographic group by the Great Recession.

Broadly speaking, men have historically had the upper hand in the U.S. economy. But with the recent decline in jobs, including manufacturing and construction jobs, young men now find it more difficult to earn enough to support a family than they did during the mid-1970s. (The Future of Children: Transition to Adulthood) And by age 30, between sixty eight and seventy five percent of young men in the United States, with only a high school degree or less, are fathers.

Many of these fathers are also incarcerated, which puts additional strain on families. Incarceration rates for men have skyrocketed since the 1980s. As Irv Garfinkel noted at the Brookings event, the U.S. is incarcerating far too many young men, particularly those of color. Although white, non-Hispanic males account for about seventy eight percent of all men over 25 in the U.S., less than one-third of prisoners are white men. Imprisonment diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup. It also adds to the deficits of poor children, thus ensuring that the effects of imprisonment on inequality are transferred intergenerationally. Perversely, incarceration has its most corrosive effects on families whose fathers were involved in neither domestic violence nor violent crime before being imprisoned. (The Future of Children: Fragile Families)

The evidence shows that, with proper funding and implementation, a surprising number of programs could help reduce the problems that afflict disadvantaged young males. Some of these include:

1.) Career Academies: career development and academic achievement programs

2.) The National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program

3.) Expanded Work Programs, including the Child Support Work Program

For more details on these programs, which were featured at the Brookings event, click here.

The Future of Children issues on Transition to Adulthood and Fragile Families also provide additional research on disadvantaged young men and their families.

New Census Data Good for Researchers

In September, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 15.2 percent of all U.S. people or 46,602,000 were living below the poverty line. This number was reached using the standard measure, the same method the Census Bureau has used for the last half century, and “a method that no longer corresponds to reality,” as Jane Waldfogel, Future of Children Issue Editor/ Author and Professor of Social Work at Columbia University told the New York Times. “It doesn’t get either side of the equation right–how much the poor have or how much they need. No one really trusts the data.” (New York Times, November 3, 2011)

This week, the Census Bureau released new poverty data based on using new methods that take into account federal programs, including tax breaks and food stamps, the cost of medical care, transportation costs to get to and from work, and the changing make-up of families. The latest figures raise the poverty line to an annual income of $24,343 for a family of 2 adults and 2 children compared to $22,113 under the official standard. When taking these factors into consideration, the percentage of people living below the poverty line in the U.S. rose to 16 percent or 49,094,000.

On the PBS News Hour, in a segment with Ray Suarez, Future of Children Senior Editor Ron Haskins points out that this is not the first time the Census Bureau has looked at poverty in the United States in a more comprehensive way. The Census Bureau has been publishing similar numbers, although not as complete as the New Supplemental Poverty Measure, since roughly 1995. One of the reasons the poverty measure is important is that it can indicate whether or not government programs are helping those living in poverty. Haskins states in this interview that these programs provide a substantial amount of help, particularly to low-income working families.

The Census Bureau admits that the new measure will not replace the official poverty measure, and it will not be used for resource allocation or for program eligibility. But this crucial data could begin to tell us something about the way millions of Americans are forced to live. (The Guardian Datablog, November 11, 2011)

As Haskins says, “I think it’s helpful for [Americans] to learn that government programs make a big difference, and it’s helpful for the poor to know that, if they try to work, even if they make low income, they can do much better because of government programs… To me, that’s the main message of this report, that government programs are effective in helping poor people, especially if they’re helping themselves.”

A table comparing the data from the Standard Poverty Measure with the New Supplemental Poverty Measure can be found on the Guardian Datablog.

For more information on programs that support poor families, see the Future of Children’s volume on Antipoverty Policies.

Childhood Obesity

First Lady Michelle Obama has made reducing childhood obesity a priority and has instituted the Let’s Move program. “Let’s Move is about kids eating healthy and moving and staying active, so you all are ready for life and for all the challenges that you’re going to face,” she said in the Let’s Move Blog, which reported the First Lady’s October 12th South Lawn event aimed at breaking the Guinness Book of World Record for the most people doing jumping jacks in a 24-hour period.

Childhood obesity continues to be a serious problem in the United States. Between 1971 and 1974, just 5 percent of all children were considered obese. The percentage of obese children doubled by 1994 and tripled by 2002 according to Future of Children authors, Patricia Anderson and Kristin Butcher’s calculations from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys.

“Logically enough, increasing childhood obesity is related to increasing adult obesity. Obese children are much more likely than normal weight children to become obese adults. Obesity even in very young children is correlated with higher rates of obesity in adulthood. A study from the late 1990s shows that 52 percent of children who are obese between the ages of three and six are obese at age twenty-five as against only 12 percent of normal and underweight three- to six-year-old children.” (Future of Children: Childhood Obesity)

Theories about what caused the obesity epidemic in the US abound. Some of the factors include: increased television and computer/video game usage, increasing use of fast-food restaurants, marketing of sugary and fat-laden foods to children, schools that offer junk food and soda to children, scaled back physical education classes and recess, and working parents who are unable to find the time or energy to cook a nutritious meal or supervise outdoor playtime. There has also been an exodus of grocery stores from urban shopping centers. This makes affordable fresh fruits and vegetables scarce.

But why should we care about childhood obesity? Shouldn’t we look beyond the physical and love children as they are? While the causes of childhood obesity can be debated by many, the consequences cannot. Obesity causes many health problems: heart disease, high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, asthma, sleep disorder, liver disease, orthopedic complications and mental health problems, just to name a few. “The possibility has even been raised that given the increasing prevalence of severe childhood obesity, children today may live less healthy and shorter lives than their parents.” (Future of Children: Childhood Obesity)

Reducing obesity requires changes in behaviors surrounding eating and physical activity. Children don’t control their environments and have difficulty making healthy choices around food. There is a clear rationale for modifying children’s environments to make it easier for them to be physically active and to make healthful food choices, thus reducing their chances of becoming obese.

On Thursday, October 20th, news sources across the country reported new research by Future of Children author and University of Chicago professor Jens Ludwig, which found that “low-income women with children who move from high-poverty to lower-poverty neighborhoods experience notable long-term improvements in some aspects of their health, namely reductions in diabetes and extreme obesity.” The Future of Children journal on “Childhood Obesity,” addresses several broad domains of children’s environments–the market place, the built environment, schools, child care providers, and homes–that might be modified to reduce obesity.

The Future of Children: Childhood Obesity can be read free of charge on our website.

The Government’s Role in Work-Family Balance

Work-family policy is not a new concept in the U.S., but it has hardly kept up with the changing needs of the worker and the family as noted in the Future of Children’s recent volume, Work and Family. The safeguards that are currently in place for the American worker were created at a time when mothers were typically at home to care for children, aging or ill family members, and do the household chores. Today, the vast majority of families do not have a stay at home parent but still have child care, and increasingly, elder care responsibilities.

In 1935, the government addressed the need for income support when workers could not be at work with the Social Security Act, which established Old Age and Survivors Insurance, unemployment insurance, and income assistance to mothers and children. This law was built on the dynamic that men were the bread winners and women, the caregivers. But that leaves many gaps for today’s families where both women and men are breadwinners and caregivers alike. Policy makers have since tried to fill many of these gaps, but inequalities that affect caregivers remain, perhaps most notably the failure of the law to cover caregiving leave. Today there are only two states, California and New Jersey, that provide state-level social insurance to workers for family leave.

In 1938 Congress enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). FLSA regulated the nation’s minimum wage and hours worked, particularly hours worked by women and children. This act was not designed to address work-family conflict but in limiting the hours worked, it did reserve time for workers to care for families. However, the act was based on the assumption that workers were employed full time – in that era, commonly ten to twelve hours each day – and did not deal with, or encourage, workplace flexibility.

Times have changed greatly since these safeguards from the 1930’s were enacted, and policies need to be updated to reflect the modern workforce. Work-family policies, that fit our time, involve initiatives that give caregivers flex and leave options that allow them the flexibility to meet their family needs without compromising their productivity. For professional workers and those subject to mandatory overtime, the problem is most often too much work; for low-wage workers it is more often too few hours and unpredictable schedules.

A growing body of empirical research suggests that workplace flexibility policies may enhance productivity by improving retention and reducing turnover. In 2010, the Council of Economic Advisers reviewed evidence on the economic value of adopting workplace flexibility and concluded that the “costs to firms of adopting these kinds of management practices can also be outweighed by reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, healthier workers, and increased productivity.” Additional research is needed to further substantiate these findings, but these initial claims are promising.

Given this, how do we update our nation’s work-family policies to reflect the flexibility needs of our changing workforce?

Although there are no easy solutions to the work-family challenge, the evidence presented in our Work and Family volume provides useful insights into the types of work-family conflicts American employees are experiencing, as well as the types of employer, governmental, and community policies that might most effectively address them. For example, the costs of sick day benefits are minimal and can be borne by individual employers, who also stand to reap gains from not having workers with contagious diseases show up at work, make their colleagues ill, and reduce overall firm productivity. Paid sick days are now guaranteed by law in several U.S. localities including San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and Milwaukee, and are gaining momentum, even despite the current economic recession. In the past few months, paid sick days were enacted into law in the state of Connecticut, in the city of Seattle, and passed in the city of Philadelphia (although not yet signed by the mayor).

For more detailed information about local and state initiatives that have updated policies to ease work-family tensions and employers that have voluntarily implemented workplace flexibility initiatives, go to our Work and Family volume and policy brief.

This blog draws from Heather Boushey’s article in the Future of Children journal, “The Role of the Government in Work-Family Conflict.”

Juvenile Justice: Keeping Teens Out of Jail

A recent incident involving an eight year old murder suspect has reignited the debate over the age at which children should be charged as adults. “Experts Doubt That 8-Year-Old’s Taped Confession in Double Killing Is Admissible,” New York Times, Nov. 21, 2008 True, this was a highly unusual case (As Dr. Tom Grisso, one of the authors who contributed to The Future of Children volume on Juvenile Justice, noted to the New York Times, trying an eight year old as an adult would be “more than extraordinary. It would be totally unique.” And predictably, the jurisdiction issue has since been resolved (it is now in juvenile court with a plea agreement being offered). But the case did raise the more common issue of when it is appropriate to treat juveniles as adults and move them from the juvenile justice system to the criminal justice system.

According to a recent Future of Children policy brief both widely accepted legal principles and research on adolescent immaturity argue that juveniles are less responsible for their criminal behavior than adults and should there­fore receive less severe punishment. Research shows that harsh punishment in adult facilities increases the probability of future violent crimes and that most youngsters who commit criminal offenses will abandon illegal behavior as they enter adulthood. Scien­tific evaluations of prevention and treatment programs for youth that provide systematic treatment in community and family settings show that these programs significantly re­duce future criminal behavior without the need for harsh sanctions. States should adapt their laws on juvenile crime to emphasize evidence-based treatment and to avoid harsh punishment for all but repeat violent offenders. (From “Keeping Adolescents out of Prison,” by Laurence Steinberg and Ron Haskins). This issue was discussed in depth at recent Future of Children conference on this topic.