The cares of youth

June 30, 1993

Growing up is hard to do, but it's harder when the context in which young people grow is tattered. Families are unquestionably the single most important influence on a child's life, yet no family, however stable and functional, can meet all the FTC needs of a growing adolescent. Education, health care, job training and community institutions also play a role in molding future generations.

Last week, the National Research Council released a three-year study of the institutions and settings that have traditionally nurtured young people. The results help to explain why so many adolescents seem to be going wrong.

Schools come in for their share of the blame: The report singled out practices such as tracking students by ability, which often results in an educational dead-end for disadvantaged students. But schools are not the crux of the problem. As one panel member noted, "It's not that education has deteriorated, but rather that the world has changed."

Economic security has eroded for many families. The report says the median real income of families headed by a parent under 30 has dropped by 32 percent in the past two decades. Meanwhile, the number of female-headed households with children under age 18 has increased by almost 40 percent. Regardless of income, adolescents living in single-parent or step families are more likely to engage in risky behaviors like running away from home or experimenting with drugs.

Adolescents also lack the safety nets available to younger children. Child welfare systems rarely work perfectly, but they do protect many young children from abuse and neglect. Yet the system often excludes adolescents, and those who do pass through it are at high risk of failing at school and ending up unemployed. Even the health care system neglects them, rarely helping them protect against or deal with problems that often plague this age group -- including the mental disorders that can crop up during these turbulent years.

Child advocates have long recognized the gap between the services offered for young children and those available when a young person, at 17 or 18 or even younger, starts another family. Those critical years between total dependency and sustainable self-sufficiency need far more attention from policy makers.

Obviously, families play the key role in their lives, but it is equally obvious that many of America's families desperately need some help.

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