KIDS COUNT Spurs Data-Driven Reform

Posted April 30, 2010
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog kidscountspursreforms 2010

When Casey’s KIDS COUNT Data Book was first released, it proved to be a ground­break­ing new tool not only for pro­vid­ing new state-by-state data on the sta­tus of chil­dren, but for focus­ing pub­lic atten­tion on issues of Casey concern.

It real­ly was a clar­i­on call that this coun­try has vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren, that our future is jeop­ar­dized if we don’t address those vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren, that there are vari­a­tions by state, and that these issues need to be a pub­lic pol­i­cy focus,” says Charles Bruner, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Child and Fam­i­ly Pol­i­cy Cen­ter, an Iowa research group.

Twen­ty years lat­er, KIDS COUNT pro­vides a wide range of resources in print and online, help­ing advo­cates and pol­i­cy­mak­ers use data to inform dis­cus­sion and deci­sion-mak­ing on behalf of children.

KIDS COUNT was first devel­oped at the Cen­ter for the Study of Social Pol­i­cy (CSSP) in Wash­ing­ton by then-staff mem­bers, includ­ing Doug Nel­son, Frank Far­row, Tom Joe, and Judy Weitz, with Casey Foun­da­tion sup­port. Nel­son, who was deputy direc­tor at CSSP, cham­pi­oned KIDS COUNT when he became Casey pres­i­dent and KIDS COUNT moved to the Foun­da­tion. William O’Hare, who had worked on the project while at the Pop­u­la­tion Ref­er­ence Bureau, was hired by the Foun­da­tion in 1993 to lead and imple­ment KIDS COUNT.

Doug was able to main­tain and sus­tain the idea behind KIDS COUNT and grow it into an impor­tant nation­al resource, pro­vid­ing both the lead­er­ship and resources,” says Judy Meltzer, CSSP deputy director.

The annu­al Data Book includes nation­al pro­files, state pro­files, and state rank­ings on sta­tis­ti­cal mea­sures of child well-being. The state data have attract­ed sig­nif­i­cant media inter­est and helped mobi­lize states to address indi­ca­tors on which they are doing poorly.

Har­ness­ing that atten­tion to high­light a wide range of Casey pri­or­i­ties, Nel­son came up with the idea of devel­op­ing an accom­pa­ny­ing essay each year. The essays offer an in-depth look at crit­i­cal issues, from child wel­fare and juve­nile jus­tice reform to ear­ly child­hood care and the high cost of being poor. These essays have become a focal point for state advo­ca­cy and pol­i­cy influ­ence over the years.

For exam­ple, short­ly after an essay was released on the chal­lenges faced by youth tran­si­tion­ing out of fos­ter care in 2007, that issue topped the list of requests for tech­ni­cal assis­tance and infor­ma­tion received by the Nation­al Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures and the Nation­al Gov­er­nors Asso­ci­a­tion.

Tak­ing an issue that is impor­tant, mar­shal­ing the evi­dence, and bring­ing it to the atten­tion of pol­i­cy­mak­ers and the pub­lic has been crit­i­cal,” says Patrick McCarthy, Casey’s new pres­i­dent and CEO.

The Child and Fam­i­ly Pol­i­cy Cen­ter in Iowa, which is the state’s KIDS COUNT grantee, used a KIDS COUNT essay on the high cost of being poor and oth­er Casey sup­port to give cred­i­bil­i­ty” to its effort in Iowa to end an emerg­ing form of preda­to­ry lending—car title loans. A new Iowa law in 2007 capped the inter­est car title lenders can charge con­sumers, effec­tive­ly elim­i­nat­ing the business.

The essay demon­strat­ed the impact that preda­to­ry lend­ing and result­ing debt has on chil­dren as well as adults” and offered illus­tra­tions of exem­plary state prac­tices” to address it, notes Bruner.

In addi­tion to the annu­al Data Book, the online Data Cen­ter pro­vides nation­al, state, coun­ty, city, and com­mu­ni­ty-lev­el data on hun­dreds of child well-being indi­ca­tors. A net­work of state orga­ni­za­tions sup­port­ed by Casey helps dis­sem­i­nate Data Book infor­ma­tion and pre­pare a more detailed com­mu­ni­ty-by-com­mu­ni­ty por­trait. Nelson’s KIDS COUNT lega­cy also includes sup­port­ing a net­work of polit­i­cal­ly savvy orga­ni­za­tions in every state and help­ing them build capac­i­ty to mon­i­tor the progress of chil­dren and fam­i­lies and use those data to advo­cate for new resources, best prac­tices, and pol­i­cy reforms.

Doug rec­og­nized ear­li­er than a lot of peo­ple that the states are a cen­ter­piece for children’s pol­i­cy,” says Matthew Stag­n­er, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Chapin Hall, a Chica­go-based research orga­ni­za­tion. He saw the val­ue of invest­ing in orga­ni­za­tions and peo­ple in every state,” adds Kristin Moore, a senior schol­ar at Child Trends, a Wash­ing­ton research center.

KIDS COUNT’s vis­i­bil­i­ty has spurred oth­er groups, here and abroad, to mount sim­i­lar data cam­paigns. Nobody would think today about try­ing to make a case for a pol­i­cy change with­out data,” notes Meltzer.

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