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A SPECIAL POLICY ISSUE FROM THE ANNIE E. CASEY FOUNDATION
WINTER 2009

Read Casey's issue brief with specific recommendations on improving data on children and families.

Improve the nation's data on children and families

Good decisions are based on good data, and a hallmark of Casey's approach is using sound data to advocate and build strategies for change. KIDS COUNT consistently earns high marks and gets attention from policymakers for tracking changes in the educational, social, economic, and physical well-being of children. However, the nation's ability to make the best program and policy decisions is often stymied by inadequate data.

Census Data

Most pressing is the need to ensure that the 2010 Decennial Census is adequately funded, managed, and promoted. The government relies upon the data to determine how to distribute nearly $400 billion each year for important programs and how many representatives a state gets in the U.S. House. The public and private sectors and nonprofits also use the data to evaluate initiatives, analyze target populations, and allocate resources. An undercounted community loses out.

"As we approach the 2010 Census, we must get an accurate count to provide low-income populations and communities their fair share of public funds—and political representation," says William O'Hare, a Casey Foundation senior fellow.

The Obama administration should nominate, and the Senate should confirm, a strong new Census Bureau director quickly so that the agency has effective leadership. It is also important to stave off proposed cuts, relative to what was spent in 2000, in advertising and outreach that can make critical differences in Census response rates. And residents should be hired to follow up with people who do not return their Census forms, particularly in historically undercounted communities.

To make the Census more efficient and effective and less vulnerable to partisan attack and manipulation, the federal government should make the Census Bureau more independent; for example, by removing it from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The director should have a five-year term to ensure continuity in Census preparations.

State and Local Data

While the federal government has shifted greater responsibility to states for child and family programs, state officials lack timely, accurate, and state-specific data to ensure these programs are working. A federally funded, annual state-by-state survey should be conducted to provide solid data on child and family well-being.

Strong neighborhood-level data also are needed to support initiatives that help families by addressing local challenges and strengthening community resources. Federal funding should be used to increase the sample size for the American Community Survey so it produces reliable data for urban and rural communities.

Health-Related Data

Key health surveys that monitor child well-being need to be funded adequately to provide comprehensive data, by race, income, and family structure, from birth through the transition to adulthood. And proposed cutbacks in the data states are asked to collect on birth certificates should be defeated to ensure fundamental and reliable information on issues like the adequacy of prenatal care, the problem of preterm births, and the effects of smoking on birth outcomes.

New Poverty Measure

Research clearly demonstrates the adverse effects of poverty on all aspects of child development, yet the current U.S. poverty measure is outdated and sharply underestimates families' costs as well as their income, resources, and benefits. The federal government should enact a new measure that would factor in current costs of health care, transportation, child care, housing, and utilities, as well as geographic cost-of-living differences. It should also count non-cash sources of income, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, food stamps, and housing vouchers. The new poverty measure also should be used in conjunction with other measures of economic well-being. "An accurate measure will better inform the strategies we use to help vulnerable families," observes Casey President Douglas W. Nelson.

Learn more:
  • The KIDS COUNT Data Center offers state and city-level data for more than 100 indicators of child well-being. Create your own maps, graphs, and charts.