KIDS COUNT Spurs Data-Driven Reform

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

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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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