With across-the-board improvements revealed in this year's "America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being 2001" report (see page 40), some observers think it's time to give community based organizations (CBOs) some of the credit.
Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), said the NICHD did not look for this correlation in compiling its key indicators report, but said CBOs may have had a lot to do with some of the improvements.
When asked about perhaps the most significant statistical improvement in the report - a large drop in youth firearm deaths - Alexander credited community leaders, particularly African-Americans, for working through churches and community organizations to teach dispute resolution and limit access to guns. "Very clearly, the black community became alarmed, and said, 'We can't continue to have this. Our kids are killing each other,'" Alexander told The New York Times. "That's the kind of stance that was taken among leaders in the African-American community, that [they had] to do something about this problem."
However, Alexander said the economic boom of last decade was probably the largest reason for the improvement in the indicators. Richard Lerner, professor at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development of Tufts University, called that economic boom "something that children living in poverty see on the six o'clock News."
"I really don't know why trends are moving in [a positive] direction," Lerner said, but he believes there are more instances of "linking assets that exist to organizations that are rising. These are ideas that are catching on at a community level. It may be - and I underscore that this is a hypothesis in need of verification - that [CBOs] are looking more at young people as resources to develop, and not as problems."
Search Institute President Peter Benson said the lack of analysis about what factors promote positive development for children is disappointing, but that the emergence of community groups in this quest will be the mark of the past decade in youth advocacy. "There are literally thousands of [CBOs], and the fact that they have blossomed at a time when indicators are improving is a very interesting correlation," Benson said.
"Community initiatives are part of how we see the federal government, just part of a zeitgeist. We see that big government is not going to get it done locally and there are a lot of institutions and assets that could be mobilized. There is an awareness of capacity, and that the solution is local."
Benson and Lerner are troubled by the lack of indicators measuring the abilities and skills of youth. "When I look at this report, I wonder if we are using the right development milestones as to whether this society is doing a good job," Benson said. "Every time society goes through a change, the first things looked at are problems, and that's part of what is needed. But we need to fill in the other half of the formula. [Indicators of well-being] should be as much about what to promote as they are about what to prevent."
Benson is working as a visiting scholar with the William T. Grant Foundation on a project that foundation President Karen Hein says "tries to imagine if programs were set up to help young people thrive, and the measurements used were thriving indicators." Among the suggested indicators: how many A's an average student receives; helping others one or more hours per week; and exhibiting leadership. Hein admitted that such indicators are more difficult to accurately measure, but "the fact that it's hard isn't a good reason not to do it."
The report is available at www.childstats.gov.