IN A DISTURBING measure of the impact of economic and social change, a new study says the status of children in the United States has declined by almost every measure over the past 30 years.
The problem, according to two economists at Stanford University's National Bureau of Economic Research, has cultural and economic roots. Even during times when family income improved, the troubles of children multiplied.
The collapse of traditional family structure has played a partial role on the social side, while the growth of poverty during the 1980s was the most significant change affecting children who already came from poor families.
Economists Victor Fuchs and Diane Reklis reported in an article published last week in Science magazine that the gap between rich and poor grew wider for children over the past 30 years, but poverty wasn't the only problem.
In almost every area of measurement, from the impact of family instability to scores on standardized college entrance exams, performance of children declined. The only major category where there was improvement was in infant mortality.
The suicide rate of children between 15 and 19 went from 3.5 per 100,000 in 1960 to 11.3 per 100,000 in 1988, and the homicide rate climbed from 4.0 per 100,000 in 1960 to 11.7 in 1988, according to the article.
The number of births to unwed mothers doubled over the period.
Even the obesity statistics became worse. Some 27 percent of children were obese in 1978, the most recent statistics cited in the report, compared to an 18 percent obesity rate in children in the 1960s.
"We have to look at the cultural side and the material side . . . almost no one who I have known has any ideas about how to do that," Fuchs said in a telephone interview.
"You can preach from the pulpit and elect politicians who say they are very interested in this, but none of it really translates into very much in the way of policy. If there are cultural changes, they come and they go and we don't have a lot of power or control over them."
The article by the Stanford economists joins a long list of studies presented over the past few years that document the decline in the living standards of American children.
Among those reports:
* One out of every four children in the United States is living in poverty, with 5 million children under the age of 6 living in families with incomes below the poverty line.
* Six percent of all American teen-agers say they have tried to commit suicide, while 15 percent describe themselves as having "come close to trying" to take their own lives.
* Homicide is the leading cause of death among blacks between the ages of 15 and 19.
* One of every seven American children between the ages of 10 and 18 has no health insurance, and a third of poor adolescents are not covered by state-run Medicaid programs.
* One teen-age girl in 10 gets pregnant every year, a rate at least twice as high as the rate in other industrialized countries.
* More than 50 percent of high school seniors get drunk at least once a month, with drinking and driving the number one killer of American adolescents.
Fuchs noted that even though many of the problems have been apparent for years, society is reluctant to address them.
"Conservatives don't want to hear too much about it because it might imply the government ought to be doing things, spending more money or creating more programs," Fuchs said.
"The women's movement, a part of it, has not been too eager to rush into this area because they feel it carries with it some kind of implicit criticism of women and what they have been doing.
"Those who have been dealing with the disadvantaged do not want to recognize the pervasive nature of what has been happening. And there are others who say, 'Well, yes, there are some children in trouble, but they are just the disadvantaged ones.'
"Well, it's more widespread than that."
Fuchs and Reklis warned that the problem goes beyond income statistics and reflects the tremendous social changes that have swept across American culture over the past 30 years.
Generally, economic conditions improved by a wide margin between 1960 and 1990. But despite those changes, the litany of social problems plaguing the youngest Americans only grew.
Between 1960 and 1970, they noted, "purchases of goods and services for children by government rose very rapidly, as did real household income per child, and the poverty rate plummeted."
But money, they noted, clearly wasn't the sole factor in children's status. "Thus, we must seek explanations for the rising problems of that period in the cultural realm," they said.
The study notes that cultural critics have pointed to everything from the divorce rate to the waning of religion in American life to the harmful influences of television as causes for the decline in status of children.
While they said it was impossible to calculate the exact causes, they have identified two "interactions" between cultural and material factors in the lives of children.