Category Archives: Indicators

Think Regionally, Measure Regionally, Act Regionally

Last month, Venture Philanthropy Partners released a groundbreaking look at the status of children and youth in the National Capital Region (NCR) visit  Child Trends was honored to be VPP’s research partner in this effort.

The information contained on the  website and in the extended report by Child Trends can help practitioners and policymakers alike address concerns in the NCR.  By considering children’s well-being across a metro area, we gain a much richer and deeper understanding of the interplay of social and demographic factors occurring across communities, which may be missed in state-level analyses.  Findings from the reports will no doubt inform a number of critical conversations throughout this Region.

However, there are implications that stretch beyond the boundaries of the NCR.

  • More than 80 percent of America’s children live in metro areas.  Such regions will shape the experience of increasing numbers of children and families.
  • The face of suburbia is changing. Immigration is just one of several mega-trends that are redefining both urban centers and their suburbs.   While there is no single pattern that applies everywhere, suburbia is gaining more residents who are poor, and more who are non-white, and is experiencing both gains and losses in overall population, depending on the locale.  Poverty among children (the age-group where poverty is most prevalent) has spread both wide and deep.
  • Reinventing community identity. The immigration of families and children from around the globe has brought a burst of talent, cultural diversity, and challenges.  By literally transcending the limitations of traditional map boundaries, this framework of analysis offers the opportunity for communities to respond creatively in re-branding themselves for a more inclusive identity—a task that will not always be easy.
  • Our data systems have not caught up with the needs of communities.  A jumble of political jurisdictions makes up the NCR, as they do many metropolitan areas.  The problems of inconsistent, incompatible, and incomplete data hinder the ability to take a truly regional, comprehensive approach to assessing needs and planning responses.  Although some communities have taken great strides toward improvement on this front, there remains much to be done.

The NCR report provides a template for more meaningful analysis of children’s well-being within our nation’s metro areas.  While many communities are adopting outcomes-based, measurement-driven approaches to reporting on the well-being of their residents, few to date have taken a truly regional approach.

Here’s why we think regionalism is a path of the future:

  • Regionalism recognizes that communities are inter-connected by commerce, job commuting, recreation opportunities, child care facilities, and (increasingly in this era of expanded choice) schools.  Families may spend different parts of the life-cycle in different parts of the same metro region.  Overall quality of life (especially exposure to the arts, formal education, cultural events, dining, specialty retailers) is increasingly metro-driven.
  • More generally, communities of every size are becoming more focused on outcomes for children and families.  In some cases, the emphasis is on historically disadvantaged neighborhoods that must enlist a broad spectrum of partners to lift up prospects for the rising generation.  In other cases, the aim may be to maintain a community’s competitive edge as a diverse, family-friendly place to live and work.
  • Certainly there is no single pattern that describes metropolitan areas (central core, plus suburbs).  Indeed, there are substantial demographic differences across the major U.S. regions (Northeast, Midwest, South, and West).

In any case, having timely comprehensive data—informed by knowledge of what children and families need to thrive—is essential in planning for smart growth, including the need for housing, schools, services, and other infrastructure.

In partnership with VPP, Child Trends produced a wealth of aggregated, comparable data for children across the National Capital Region.  We would be delighted to apply this model to other metropolitan regions that seek to work across political jurisdictions to improve the lives of children and youth.

David Murphey

Senior Research Scientist

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Filed under Children, Early Childhood Indicators, Indicators, Poverty

Driving Blind

Imagine driving a car with no dashboard—that’s right, no speedometer, no gas gauge, no oil light, no odometer; strictly seat-of-the-pants.  Or, imagine trying to plan a party without knowing how many guests are coming, where they’re coming from, how long they’re staying (you have extra beds, right?), what they’re bringing (are kids OK?), what they don’t eat—or even who they are.

No responsible family, and certainly no developed country, attempts to function in the absence of basic information about its members.  The U.S. Census, mandated by the framers of the Constitution, supplies data that form the basis for literally thousands of critical decisions, including ensuring our “one person, one vote” system of political representation, as well as helping our schools, businesses, military forces, and retirement communities plan to meet the needs of a rapidly changing population.  Think “market research” at its most basic level.

While the decennial Census is a complete count of the population (tabulated by age, sex, race/ethnicity, and a few household characteristics), the American Community Survey (ACS) is the source for all the detailed socio-demographic information— marriage (status and history), residential mobility, veteran status, languages spoken, immigration and ancestry, disability, and numerous other topics—that was formerly collected on the much longer Census form.

But the key features of the ACS are its timeliness and its ability to produce updated estimates for even the smallest geographical areas (counties, cities and towns, and even neighborhoods).  The ACS accomplishes this by using a “continuous sampling method.”  Every month, households selected to be representative of the population are surveyed.

By accumulating their responses over a 12-month period, a sample is achieved that is sufficiently large to report estimates annually for the nation, all states, and all other jurisdictions (for instance, most counties and cities) with populations of at least 65,000.  Three years’ of data are necessary to report estimates for places with populations less than 65,0000 but at least 20,000; and five years’ of data are required for the smallest communities.  These multi-year estimates are updated every year by dropping the oldest year’s data, and adding the most recent year’s (so that 2006-2010 becomes 2007-2011).  That way, while wholly new data are available for some regions only every few years, estimates are still refreshed yearly.

At Child Trends, we know first-hand the value of this resource.  ACS data are among the components used to produce the Census Bureau’s population estimates.  These estimates, in turn, form the basis for calculating important indicators, such as rates of teen births, child abuse and neglect, and youth voting.

Because so much important planning occurs at the community level (think schools, transportation systems, housing), having more-frequent data has been a huge boon to people who work in smaller rural or urban communities.  Prior to coming to Child Trends, I worked in state government, and my tenure there corresponded with the advent of the ACS. In Vermont, the prospect of having, within a few years, annually updated data for even the smallest communities was not only enthusiastically welcomed, but was critical to our new focus on data-driven decision-making.  We could, of course, count the number of teen births; but that didn’t provide the information necessary to compare rates over time or with states like New York.  The ACS provides the population data needed to calculate rates.

Why does the ACS use sampling?  Because a complete count is very expensive.  We can reduce the burden (and cost) of a “count everybody” approach by selecting much smaller subsets of the population that will provide valid estimates, if carefully chosen.   This is no haphazard process, but one based on science that is widely used in the business sector, by opinion polling firms, and by governments around the world.

Making the survey explicitly “voluntary,” as some have suggested, would not only add greatly to the work (and cost) of surveying, but could produce data that are less representative of the whole population.

The American Community Survey is the Census updated for the 21st century.  The ACS now delivers on an annual basis the information our communities used to get just once a decade.  Does anyone seriously believe that in today’s world we want to base decisions on data that are ten or more years old?  Few enterprises would be content with, or survive long, with that kind of information; as a nation, we deserve at least as much.

-David Murphey, Senior Research Scientist

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Filed under Children, Indicators

Having a Better Balance Sheet on Children’s Data

Events of the last few weeks, and their coverage in the media, are a case-study of the power of indicators to compel attention and action.  We’ve watched the stock market numbers, and the credit ratings; we’ve dissected their day-to-day movements, and discussed the reasons behind their rise and fall.

Some might argue the extent to which these data mirror the actual “health” of the economy (let alone the “well-being” of the nation), but because they are part of a steady stream of data we feel they demand attention, explanation.  They assume a “reality”—some might say too much reality—to the point where we feel, that if we see the numbers going in the “right” direction, then indeed things are getting better.  Or, if they’re headed the “wrong” way, we had better do something about it—and fast!

Now, imagine if other sorts of numbers attracted similar attention and action.  What if the daily ticker, in addition to stock prices, put out the latest high school dropout rates, the latest teen pregnancy rates, the latest data on how often parents read to their young children, the latest data on how many youth are volunteering in their communities, the number of young children ready for school, the number of children receiving routine preventive health care?  What kinds of discussions would we have then?  Certainly the picture of our national well-being would be much fuller, nuanced with both heartening as well as troubling trends.

Of course, we have all these data, and more (see But generally they’re buried far into the back pages of the media, if they appear at all.  And they are released, unfortunately, too infrequently, out-of-sync with real time, with too little coordination, and with too little context.

We are what we measure; and what gets measured, gets done.  We’ve just seen this played out in plain view.  We should be taking just as seriously the measures we already have that quantify what we value in our children, in our families, in our communities. The good news is, we have the infrastructure in place; we just need to elevate these data to the prominence and currency we give to the financial figures—those are important, but incomplete as a picture of our nation’s strengths and challenges.

-David Murphey
Senior Research Scientist




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Filed under Budget, Children, Indicators