The annual Kids Count report, released Wednesday, shows that nationally, between 1990 and 2000, improvements were reported in eight of the 10 indicators it uses to measure the quality of children's lives.
The report, based on government data, found that between 1990 and 2000:
The infant mortality rate fell 25 percent, from 9.2 deaths for every 1,000 live births to 6.9. The rate continues to be much higher in poor families and in inner cities.
Child deaths, which includes children ages 1 to 14, fell nearly 30 percent. Teen deaths by accident also dropped by nearly that much.
The teen-birth rate fell 27 percent.
The high school dropout rate fell 10 percent.
Child poverty fell 15 percent from 1989 to 1999. More recent data show that in 2001, 16.3 percent of children lived in poverty.
Two indicators showed negative trends: An increase in babies being born underweight and the percent of families headed by a single parent.
"There was a lot of good news in the '90s," said William O'Hare, coordinator of the project for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private research and grant-making concern that compiled the report.
Despite the progress, the report's authors warned that the data came from years when the economy was strong, and that poverty stubbornly remains in many neighborhoods and small towns, like Tulare County, parts of which look like Third World shantytowns.
Down a dusty dirt road past chickens and skinny puppies, where the stench of poverty is unmistakable — urine, garbage, wet earth — Moises Ochoa lives with his wife and three children in a battered trailer.
Injured on the job as a farm laborer several years ago, Ochoa doesn't work; his wife just started picking grapes this year.
"How do we live? Who knows," Ochoa says in Spanish, a muddy tear dripping down his cheek. "Only God knows. This is not what I want for my children."
Ochoa's story is typical here in Tulare County, one of many such areas that have lingered in the United States, despite being the nation's No. 2 county for agricultural production.
About 47 percent of Tulare County's poor adults with children say they don't have enough money to put food on the table, says Catherine Teare of the Oakland-based advocacy group Children Now.
"The county is feeding the nation but they're shipping it all out," Teare said.
In Alpaugh, Earlimart, Plainview, Woodville and other small mostly Hispanic outposts in Central California's San Joaquin Valley, some families live in lean-tos, trailers and wood shacks with no indoor plumbing or electricity.
The hunger is so bad that Feed the Children, the Oklahoma-based Christian non-profit, is preparing a massive food drive in the county, and will begin filming a commercial there in July. The group has made similar efforts in Kentucky, West Virginia and Arkansas.
Many poor families here are illegal immigrants who work in fields only part of the year with fake social security numbers. At the elementary school in Woodville, all 600 kids receive free meals; 95 percent of their parents are farm laborers.
"We're in another world here," says school secretary Augustina Costa, walking along a nearby dirt side street, lined with ramshackle wooden huts where stray dogs dig in the trash and children run barefoot.
"It's places like this where kids fall through the cracks," Costa says. "But (parents) really can't say much because they're illegals and they're afraid they'll get sent back to Mexico."