The world is a scary place.
Climate change. Pollution. Poverty. Endless war. Opiates. Emerging and re-emerging diseases. Growing disparity. Fractious politics.
Our kids aren’t insulated either.
School shootings. Bullying. Sex trafficking. Diminishing opportunities. Social media. The internet.
What kind of world are we leaving for our kids? Is it even fair to bring a child into this world?
My answer: Yes, absolutely.
Sure, we have our problems. But when you step back and look at the big picture globally, nationally and even locally, I argue that never in history has there been a better time to be a child. Even compared with this writer’s own youth, things have gotten considerably better for kids.
Let’s take a break from the doom, gloom and mayhem that constitute most of our daily news consumption and consider all the ways children’s lives are better than ever.
Around the world, child health is improving dramatically. Since 1990 infant mortality has decreased by 55 percent and total under-5 mortality declined by 58 percent. Four out of 100 children born today are not expected to make it to age 5, which is appalling and the stuff of every parent’s worst nightmare, but it’s a huge improvement over 19 percent in 1960 and 7 percent as recently as 2003, according to the World Health Organization.
A major driver of improved child health is vaccines — over 80 percent of 1-year-olds worldwide have been vaccinated against six major diseases, and vaccines are estimated to save 3 to 4 million lives per year.
Another engine of improved childhood well-being is reduction in poverty. Global poverty is plummeting. Today only 4 percent of children live in extreme poverty compared with more than 44 percent in the 1980s. (These and many other interesting statistics are compiled by Max Roser at OurWorldInData.org). Many, many more kids have access to basic food, shelter, clothing and education.
But all that global wealth has come at a cost of massive environmental destruction, right? We have big global environmental problems, to be sure, but the world we come into contact with every day is cleaner than it has been since preindustrial times.
Roughly 90 percent of the world has access to safe drinking water, up from 76 percent in 1990. Global consumption of stratospheric ozone-depleting substances is less than 2 percent of its peak in 1989. Thanks to cleaner cooking fuels, indoor air pollution is less than it has been since Prometheus came along.
In the U.S. we’ve been especially successful at cleaning up our act, thanks in large part to 1970s environmental legislation. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, between 1990 and 2017 national concentrations of air pollutants improved 77 percent for carbon monoxide, 88 percent for sulfur dioxide, 56 percent for nitrogen dioxide and 22 percent for ozone. Fine particle concentrations improved 40 percent and coarse particle concentrations improved 34 percent between 2000 (when airborne particle data tracking began) and 2015.
Lead poisoning is an especially notable success story. In the year I was born, babies in the U.S. had an average blood lead level of 16 micrograms per deciliter. Since the removal of lead from gasoline and paint, exposure has steadily declined, and the average level is now less than one. Lead is a potent neurotoxin — just in reducing lead exposure we can expect babies born today to have an IQ about five points higher on average than their parents, with accompanying higher education rates, “occupational attainment” and perhaps (more controversially) lower rates of crime.
We still have much to learn (and probably much to fix) about the toxic effects of synthetic chemicals in plastics, pesticides, metals and other things we put in and on our kids’ bodies. Fortunately there are also more ways to avoid those products, such as buying organic.
In the U.S. we are less dangerous to each other. Violent crime is down 35 percent since 1992. According to FBI data the number of missing person reports for children has fallen by more than 40 percent since 1997. (And in a major boost to mental well-being, kids are no longer obliged to look at photos of missing children on milk cartons every morning.)
The same goes on the roads. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that between 1993 and 2013 the number of child pedestrians struck and either killed or injured by cars fell by more than two-thirds.
Here in Teton County, kids are particularly blessed.
A baby born at St. John’s Medical Center today has a life expectancy of 83.5 years, higher than in 99 percent of other U.S. counties, according to county-level data from the Institute for Health Metrics at the University of Washington. Just 200 years ago global life expectancy was a meager 29 years. Even today some parts of the U.S. have a life expectancy 20 years lower than ours. We enjoy low teen pregnancy, impressive high school graduation and excellent rates of college attendance.
Living in one of the country’s richest and most pristine places has its advantages, even if you can’t afford your own personal conservation easement. We have amazing access to the outdoors (see my previous column on “nature therapy”), endless activities and fantastic schools. According to the Old Bill’s roster we have at least 37 nonprofit organizations specifically geared toward children.
All of this progress, locally and globally, has come only because of the tireless work of many people dedicated to making the world a better place for all of us and our children. Thank you for being one of those people.
We still have plenty of problems still to solve as individuals and in our communities, and much work is still needed to save our kids and the world. The tide of statistical progress does not lift all boats. But sometimes it’s nice to know: All that work can pay off.
[Writer’s note: this piece contains more percentages than a Jonathan Schechter column. My apologies to readers and to Councilor Schechter: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.]