Journal Issue: When School Is Out Volume 9 Number 2 Fall 1999
Despite the media attention paid to the rapid brain development of infants and the risky behavior of adolescents (ages 15 and up), most of childhood falls quietly between those high-profile periods. In 1998, there were 39 million children ages 5 to 14 living in the United States.3 That is more than twice the number living here in 1900, as Figure 1 shows. Nevertheless, children now make up a smaller percentage of the citizenry, for a range of reasons: Families are having fewer children,4 elders are living longer,5,6 and a growing number of adults are remaining childless.7 Only 34% of U.S. households included any children under age 18 in 1996.8 That year, one in seven Americans were between the ages of 5 and 14, compared with one in five in 1960.9
The race and ethnicity of the nation's children have also changed from earlier in the twentieth century. As the flow of immigration from Europe slowed, and immigration from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Middle East expanded, the population of American children has grown more diverse. As Figure 2 shows, the proportion of American 5- to 14-year-olds who are not Caucasian has increased from one-fourth in 1980 to about one-third in 1998.10 It is expected to approach one-half by the year 2020. Today, one American child in five is either foreign-born or born to immigrant parents.11
These changes in the composition of the U.S. population—the shrinking proportion who are children and the growing diversity of those children's backgrounds—may have important political implications. If few voters are parents, or if voting adults do not feel a kinship with children whose skin color, native language, or family culture differs from theirs, the changes described above could weaken public support for programs benefitting children, youths, and families.