Move Over, Greenspan

Karen Pittman
November 1, 1998

Bear with me, I want to talk about data — specifically about official indicators and why we must invest time lobbying for their effective development and use.

While there is no shortage of fact books, until recently there has been no official government compilation of indicators. Accordingly, America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, prepared by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, had the potential to be momentous. Unfortunately, it was not.

Not only does the human capital world lack an Index of Leading Economic Indicators, but it lacks an Alan Greenspan and a stock market. We should be able to get some media play out of an official publication reporting on the well being of our children. But to do so, we must actively develop a market for it, and its quality must be improved. From an advocacy perspective, this report barely gets a passing grade. Here's why:

The indicators are disproportionately negative. Educational achievement and attainment are the only positive youth indicators offered. Indicators of negative outcomes must be matched with indicators of positive development which extend beyond academic competence. Only one positive environmental indicator is offered: percent of parents reading to preschoolers. Since trends showing declines in the caliber of services and supports which the middle-class demand (e.g., after-school activities) are often more compelling than trends showing further decreases in the services we know the poor do not have (e.g., health care). This gap stifles the policy leverage of advocates.

The types of indicators are skewed. To spark informed action, information is needed not just on status (how many youth are...), but on services/expenditures (how many received...), environments (how many have...) and behaviors (how many did...). The data need to tell a story; this report gives only disjointed statistics. The education indicators, for example, emphasize student achievement and attainment with no mention of quality and access beyond parental reading and enrollment in pre-school and childcare. The economic security indicators (which emphasize the family environment) provide no information on family services. The health indicators offer almost nothing on services, insurance, access or emotional health. Finally the "Behavior and Social Environment" indicators focus exclusively on adolescent problem behaviors, neglecting to report on environmental supports.

The comparison data are boring and predictable. The trend lines are fairly flat (exceptions: increases in adolescent smoking, substance abuse, decreases in youth violence and child blood lead levels). The disparities (e.g., minorities vs. whites) are predictable. Gaps analyses and international and regional comparisons that could spark action are absent. The public could likely be mobilized by knowing that: while the U.S. teen birth rate is declining, it remains far higher than our international peers; and while child poverty rates climb slowly, the gap between rich and poor children is increasing rapidly and is far larger in the U.S. than elsewhere.

Treatment of the age groups is uneven. Presenting only negative social behaviors, and only for adolescents, reinforces the media's vilification of the age group and the image that everything is fine before and after adolescence. Reporting services data only for some of the age groups (e.g., parental and institutional support of young children's education) raises more questions than it answers.

To have an impact, an indicators report must do more than reiterate information the public is used to hearing. It must speak in ways that inspire action. While this report is not alone in its failure, it is alone in its potential to be a sanctioned policy tool. Left as is, we not only lose an opportunity to educate the public, we run the risk of providing uneven information which supports uneven actions. Hiding behind concerns about the quality of available data sources is unacceptable. The educational value of presenting data which tell the whole story should not only outweigh our concern about data quality, it should drive it.

Pittman, Karen. "Move Over, Greenspan."Youth Today, November 1998, p. 55.

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