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California and the West

Youths Face New Challenges, Child Advocacy Group Finds

Survey: With population soaring, many teenagers contend with poverty and poor health care. But they also are more likely to finish high school and get jobs, study says.


California's adolescent population is increasing at more than twice the rate of the overall population, and the rapidly growing number of youths face pervasive poverty, poor health care and a higher chance of incarceration than they would almost anywhere else in the nation, according to a study released today by Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy group.

But there are also encouraging signs in the group's "state of the children" report: California teenagers today are more likely to finish high school and find work than in previous years, and teenage pregnancy rates have declined in the last decade, the study found. As the booming population of youths improves its behavior, however, it faces more daunting economic, educational and health care challenges.

"We are going through an expansion that will result in a big bump in the teenage population, and we as a society--and California in particular--are just not ready to meet these kids' needs," said Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now.

The state's population of young people 10 to 17 years old is expected to grow to 4.7 million by 2005, up 36% from 1995, according to the study. Salisbury said the study focuses on growth for the decade between 1995 and 2005 because the adolescent population in those years represent the children of those born in the last leg of the postwar "baby boom," which ended in 1964.

California has one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation, ranking 45th among the 50 states, according to the report. The state's overall child poverty rate is 20%, with Latino and African American children suffering from poverty at roughly twice the rate of white and Asian American children.

The report also projects that job growth in the next five years will be concentrated in low-wage jobs, which is likely to keep the child poverty rate high.

About one-fifth of California's children also are not covered by health insurance, the report said.

With the adolescent population climbing, Salisbury said, government and business leaders need to pay more attention to teenagers. "We think a lot about early childhood, but we as a culture don't think much about teenagers and how to treat them," Salisbury said.

When attention is paid to teenagers, it often is negative, Salisbury said. One indicator of the state's wariness of teenagers, according to the report, is its high rate of imprisoning juveniles. California has the fourth-highest percentage of incarcerated juveniles among the states and the District of Columbia, Children Now said.

As with poverty, juvenile detention rates vary greatly by race. Asian American, Latino and African American youths arrested for felonies are roughly four times more likely to be sentenced to California Youth Authority confinement than whites, according to the report.

The report cites such statistics as a sign that "fearful impressions of young people have led many Californians to endorse a highly punitive approach to certain youth, rather than strengthening preventive measures."

Several hopeful trends are identified in the report. The decline in teen births is touted as "one of the success stories of this decade." Teenage births dropped from 70 per 1,000 females in 1990 to 53 in 1998. While the birth rate has fallen for all ethnic groups, its decline was most dramatic among African American teenagers, whose birth rate dropped 38% between 1990 and 1998.

Youth unemployment is down, from 23% of job-seeking youths unable to find work in 1990 to a 16% rate in 1999, the report said.

High school graduations also appear to have climbed, especially among African American and Latino students, but the study cautions that such data for California could be incomplete because schools use a different tracking method.

The report also acknowledges that recent policies are likely to improve the lot of adolescents. Among them are programs to speed enrollment in Medi-Cal, and funding increases for after-school programs.

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