As We Count Kids, Remember Young Adults

Karen Pittman
August 16, 2011

The annual KIDS COUNT Data Book was released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and it got me thinking about a dilemma.

As you know, the Data Book reports state-by-state data on 10 key child and youth indicators, accompanied by a thoughtful essay.  Each year, this book gives us hard data to substantiate what youth workers and youth advocates around the country see: child and youth well-being is improving overall, but the disparities – between states, between racial and ethnic groups, between income groups – are growing. And the recession threw more children into poverty.

This year’s essay focuses on the worsening picture for vulnerable families. Patrick McCarthy, the Casey Foundation president, summarizes the data on families hit by unemployment, foreclosures and loss of health benefits, recounts the research on how these hardships affect child well-being, and looks at the federal and state policies that work to reduce these disparities.

The essay is nuanced, data-rich and well worth the read. And for the first time, Kids Count includes powerful stories of five real families that are facing significant challenges, and getting help from public systems.

Two of these families are young parents with children—which gets me to my dilemma.

Investments in early childhood are essential to preparing the next generation to succeed—but so too are investments in older youth.

Rosa Huestis, 22, lives with her boyfriend and their 9-month-old in New England. Two years ago, Huestis—who spent time in foster care—got help covering her housing and education costs thanks to state laws that extend foster care benefits beyond age 18.  She and her boyfriend were both recently laid off from their jobs, and now rely on unemployment, health insurance and food assistance to keep their family afloat while they hold onto their dreams of getting more education. 

Charles Leach, 21, and Jessika Campbell, 24, live in Georgia with their 18-month-old Sonny.  They both work, and they rely on subsidized child care to ensure that Sonny gets the high-quality learning experiences he needs.  But Charles, whose career has gotten a boost from an intensive job training program he participated in, has ongoing medical bills because he was in a traffic accident while he was unemployed and uninsured earlier this year.

Like so many young families, these are parents whose dreams and mettle have been tested by the economy, but whose situations would undoubtedly have been worse without public benefits.  Such stories can be redoubled if this country makes just and prudent policy decisions in the months ahead.

More than that, however, these stories repeat a crucial point that is often lost in our focus on kids: investing in the next generation requires investments in young adults.

McCarthy’s essay rightly argues that families with young children should be the target of a “two-generational strategy”—one that supports parents and helps them improve their young children’s health, development and educational success. Younger children are especially vulnerable; the “younger they are and the longer they are exposed to economic hardship, the higher the risk of failure,” McCarthy writes. The data bear this out.

Investments in early childhood are essential to preparing the next generation to succeed—but so too are investments in older youth and young adults.

To be sure, young families are not the only vulnerable families. But there is no doubt that young families are disproportionately caught in the crosshairs of unemployment, under-education and lack of health care. 

In general, we as a nation invest less in older youth, and the investments we make are more reactive and fragmented. What’s more, the data we have about older youth is fragmented; it’s harder to get a coherent picture of who this group is because they straddle multiple systems.

We need to do a better job of highlighting the statistics and stories of older youth, and ensuring that our policy recommendations include strategies that address their needs for job training, educational stipends, extended health and social benefits, employer incentives and paid service opportunities.

We need, in short, to pull out the stops to be sure that we’re not only investing early but also maintaining those investments to give all young people a chance to be ready for college, work and life by age 21—and successful by 26.

Karen Pittman is one of the country’s top leaders on youth development and youth policy, and founder and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment ,  SparkAction's managing partner. The Forum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan "action tank" dedicated to helping communities and the nation make sure all young people are Ready by 21®: ready for college, work and life. Informed by rigorous research and practical experience, the Forum forges innovative ideas, strategies and partners to strengthen solutions for young people and those who care about them.