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Laura Speer: Five Questions with Casey

As associate director for policy reform and advocacy, Laura Speer is responsible for KIDS COUNT, a Casey Foundation initiative launched in 1990 to track the well-being of children at the national and state level.

Speer oversees the annual
KIDS COUNT Data Book and related reports. She also serves as liaison to a national network of state advocacy organizations that produce their own KIDS COUNT reports and promote data-based policies and communication strategies.

Speer worked as a research analyst with the Rhode Island KIDS COUNT grantee before joining Casey in 2003. She has a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a master’s in public administration from New York University.

Q1. Are there any surprises in this year’s KIDS COUNT Data Book rankings?

Mississippi has ranked 50th in the nation in terms of child well-being in every Data Book until this year, when New Mexico moved into the bottom position for 2013. Furthermore, three out of the five states in the bottom tier of the Data Book’s rankings are in the Southwest.

These states had been slipping in the rankings over the last several years, and a 2012 change to how we calculate the rankings has only made these downward shifts more marked. In contrast to our prior index which included more health-related factors, our current measure now includes equal numbers of economic well-being and education indicators. These are areas where the southwestern states have not made progress, which has placed them lower in terms of overall child well-being.

Q2. With the recession lifting, one would expect indicators of child well-being to improve. Has that happened?

Yes and no. Some indicators have improved, such as those related to health and education. But economically speaking, children are still not doing as well today as they were before the recession began. The data in this report are from 2011, and we expect things to continue to get better as we get newer data. But the child poverty rate still stood at 23 percent in 2011. That means 16.4 million children were living in households below the poverty line, 3 million more than in 2005. So that’s a big concern for us.

Q3. The report shows that young children have been hit even harder by the recession when compared to children of all ages. What are the policy implications?

The data show that 26 percent of children under age 5 are living in poverty, higher than the national average for all kids. The first five years are such a critically important time in children’s lives. When children are exposed to poverty early and don’t get the kinds of support they need, it can have a major impact on their brain development and future educational success. At the same time, the research is clear that investments in high-quality early childhood programs help children overcome early challenges and succeed in school. So the data underscore the importance of strategies that combine efforts to help parents succeed in the workforce so fewer children grow up in poverty with high-quality preschool experiences to help children get off to the right start.

Q4. Why is it important to rank states?

State rankings give people a number that can be easily understood and an idea of how their state fares relative to others, so they can see what is possible and where there is room for improvement. People have a lot of pride in their states, so the rankings can spur them to work for change and light a fire under policymakers. State advocacy organizations in the KIDS COUNT network use the Data Book to evaluate where their states are and track whether measures such as child poverty or the high school dropout rate have gone up or down. We also prepare state profiles that can be presented to legislators, governors or community members so that they have a barometer for child well-being in their state and can better target resources.

Q5. What else is the Casey Foundation doing to help make data on child well-being more accessible to the general public and researchers?

The 16 indicators in the Data Book are just the tip of the iceberg. For those who want to scratch beneath the surface, we have just rolled out our revamped KIDS COUNT Data Center to offer detailed data on hundreds of indicators at the national level and for congressional districts, cities, counties and school districts. The site offers 4 million data points in a format that allows users to search, create maps, share information on social media, produce graphs for publications and websites and view real-time data on mobile devices.