Five Questions with Casey: Laura Speer on the Well-Being of U.S. Children

Posted June 7, 2013
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Laura SpeerAs 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 Books 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.

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