Health & Human Services

Making Data on Kids Count

What does the data collected by children and family advocates tell us about where to invest in kids?
by | January 10, 2012
 

It's that time of year again: State of the State addresses. In what has become an annual tradition, each governor will make his or her way up to the podium this month to offer up big promises for the coming year, whether it's huge investments in infrastructure or vowing to clean up government. But one promise is sure to make every governor's list: an investment in kids.

In many states, it already has. Even after massive cuts to its human services budget, Washington state plans to pump $5.5 billion into health and human services, a good portion of that money going to programs to help children and families. Connecticut plans to spend nearly $6 billion on kids and families alone. Smaller, more targeted programs abound. Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare, for example, has awarded more than $1.5 million in Children's Trust Fund grants to 13 community organizations for programs to prevent child abuse and neglect. Even Texas is working to dig its way out of its last-in-the-nation status in regards to delivering food stamps. How is Texas doing this? "Through a relentless focus on results," wrote Melissa Maynard in a December Stateline.org story on the Texas turnaround.

If there is a theme to how children and family services advocates frame their goals and activities for 2012, a relentless focus on results isn't bad, but it's also not good enough.

Trying to tease out results when it comes to children and family services has always been a challenge. The Annie E. Casey Foundation probably takes the most credible and ambitious crack at it through its annual Kids Count report, which offers up state-by-state data on everything from percent of low birth weight babies to percent of children in single family homes. But generally, most attempts at teasing out results take myopic approaches to data, ignoring important factors.

For example, a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families notes a steady four-year decrease in maltreatment of kids. A still shockingly high number -- 754,000 -- suffered maltreatment in 2010, but that's down 9,000 from 2009.

On the other hand, data compiled by The National Center on Family Homelessness found that more than 1.6 million children -- or one in 45 -- were at some point homeless in 2010, a nearly 40 percent increase from the beginning of the Great Recession. If homelessness isn't a form of child maltreatment, what is?

As we head into another tough budget year, these are the type of discrepancies that children and family service advocates ought to be talking about. If officials from the department of children and family services come to a budget meeting asking for X billions of dollars, it's not unreasonable to ask what the money is being spent on and what the state will be getting in return.

Dozens of academics have made careers of analyzing things like poverty and educational achievement. Yet, we still lack a cohesive framework for figuring out what works and how to spend money most effectively. A handful of states, including Connecticut, Indiana and Washington, are now serious about collecting good data on child and family well-being, but even they continue to struggle with what the data really tells us about where to invest.

Those in the children and family welfare business -- whether public officials or advocates -- need to continue getting much better at analyzing what programs or combination of programs, and what types of assistance or intervention, really add up to improved outcomes.

And so as governors nationwide solemnly promise to invest in kids in 2012, the challenge falls to advocates to get much, much better at helping their governors decide where such investments should be made.

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