Youth Statistics Swell, but is That Swell For Youth Programs?

Greg Lantier
September 1, 1998

Why do cows die? The federal government wants to know: in 1995, it says, digestive problems caused 876,000 cattle deaths, accounting for 20 percent of the 4.38 million bovines who perished.

And what was the number of homeless children living in the U.S. at the time? No reliable data were collected, marking yet another of the statistical gaps that many youth service professionals have long lamented.

But a new report and the growth of several others attest to a virtual explosion in youth statistics — an explosion that is prompting changes in approaches to youth and family services, while raising questions about the value of complex statistics for youth work. The recent release of “America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being,” demonstrates how data collection and analysis have become the new ideology of technocrats in tackling youth problems. Funding requests and policy discussions are more and more likely to be influenced by measured indicators and outcomes, and less by the experienced judgment of youth service providers.

The new statistics are “doing for kids what’s already done for the economy,” says Margaret Dunkle, director of Policy Exchange at the Institute for Educational Leadership, based in Washington, D.C.

“This really is much more of a breakthrough than it might appear on the surface,” says Kristin Moore, president of Child Trends, Inc., the Washington, D.C.-based research agency.

The second annual America’s Children report was released in July by the Federal Interagency Forum on Children and Family Statistics, a group of 16 federal agencies and several private research organizations. The report measures children’s economic security, health, education, behavior and social environment, bringing together information that was available before but scattered essentially repackaging existing data to make it more useful for youth policymakers, service providers and funders.

Such comprehensive reports could help government and private agencies target resources, says Joan Benso, executive director of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. But some youth service professionals warn against becoming too reliant on statistics.
Power in Numbers

The collection and use of youth statistics has been growing for decades. The now-defunct National Council of Organizations for Children and Youth published a fact book called “America’s Children” in 1976. It covered many of the same indicators as does the new America’s Children. The Children’s Defense Fund has published the “State of America’s Children Yearbook” under various titles since 1981. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has produced “KIDS COUNT” annually since 1990, and is sponsoring Child Trends’ “Indicators of Child, Youth, and Family Well-Being,” which catalogs more than 60 projects by organizations that measure the well-being of kids.

Youth statistics clearly influence policy decisions. Oregon’s Multnomah County recently allocated $2.5 million dollars to a school attendance initiative that shifts focus from high schoolers to students in grades four through 10, because new data collected by the county showed that kids in that age group were the most likely to skip school and drop out. The reasons include not feeling that the classroom is relevant and staying home to care for siblings. So the county is launching alternative school programs and working more closely with social services workers to get kids to stay in school, says Carol Ford, strategic planner of Multnomah County.

But good state-based youth data are still the exception. For instance, no states met this year’s May 31 federal deadline for measuring child poverty. And because states and the federal government have lacked extensive long-term trend data on youth, they have relied largely on short-term data to develop short-term policies. Researchers and youth advocates would favor more long-term data, but Stephen Percy, director of the Center for Urban Initiatives at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, explains, “Data is not collected for researchers and advocates.”

Master the Data

Perhaps that is changing. No statistical report comes with the government firepower of America’s Children. The Federal Interagency Forum includes statistical divisions of the Office of Management and Budget, the National Science Foundation, and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, and Labor.

Some youth service professionals and even members of the Forum fault the report for not including sufficient data on issues such as mental health, disabilities, living arrangements, time use and neighborhood characteristics. Others, like Judith Erickson, research director of the Indiana Youth Institute, say the indicators focus too much on negative aspects of children’s lives. The Center for Youth Development and Policy Research wants future reports to include positive indicators such as computer-to-youth ratios by school, hours of non-academic use of individual school buildings, and hours spent by children at libraries.

Michael Jacobson, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says that whether the statistics are positive or not, the important thing for youth service organizations is to have data to support funding requests. He says most groups underrate the importance of statistics and their effect on government and foundation budget decisions.

“Because there is so little data, it is especially easy for policy makers and others not to fund things,” Jacobson says.

Some observers warn, however, that statistics cannot replace thought or good leadership, and are often used to mask prejudices. “It’s an illusion to think that we’ve been liberated from making tough social choices by data,” says David Murray, research director of the Statistical Assessment Service, a research organization based in Washington, D.C. “With data, the important thing to remember is don’t throw it out, but don’t let it master you.”

And ultimately, good data are just the start, says the IEL’s Dunkle. The real public policy challenge is to hold several seemingly unrelated agencies responsible for the same indicators — and for making changes to improve the findings. Only then, she says, will anyone see the significant policy and funding shifts that many youth service professionals hope for in a data-driven future.

Resources

Joan Benso

Executive Director

Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children

20 N. Market Sq., Ste. 300

Harrisburg, PA 17101-1632

(717) 920-2700

Fax: (317) 924-1314

David Murray

Research Director

Statistical Assessment Service

2100 L St., NW

Washington, DC 20037

(202) 223-3193

Fax: (202) 872-4014

Michael Jacobson

Professor

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

899 10th Ave.

New York, NY 10019

(212) 237-2048

Fax: (212) 941-9407

Margaret Dunkle

Director

Institute for Educational Leadership Policy Exchange

1001 Connecticut Ave., NW, Ste. 310

Washington, DC 20036

(202) 822-8405

Fax: (202) 872-4050

William O’Hare

KIDS COUNT Coordinator

Annie E. Casey Foundation

701 St. Paul St.

Baltimore, MD 21202

(410) 547-6600

Fax: (410) 547-6624

Kristin Moore

President

Child Trends, Inc.

4301 Connecticut Ave., NW, Ste. 100

Washington, DC 20008

(202) 362-5580

Fax: (202) 362-5533

Stephen Percy

Director

Center for Urban Initiatives & Research

University of Wisconsin

1900 E. Kenwood Blvd., Rm. 450

Milwaukee, WI 53211

(414) 229-5916

Fax: (414) 229-3884

Judith Erickson

Research Director

Indiana Youth Institute

3901 N. Meridian St., Ste. 200

Indianapolis, IN 46208-4046

(317) 920-2700

Fax: (317) 924-1314

Sidebar:

Youth Statistics Swell, but is That Swell For Youth Programs?: America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being — Selected Statistics


Lantier, Greg. "Youth Statistics Swell, but is That Swell For Youth Programs?"Youth Today, September 1998, p. 50.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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