Annie E. Casey Foundation
The release of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Book in late July again turned the media’s attention to the well-being of children. What most newspapers said is true: More things are improving for children than not.
But the report itself warns against complacency based on that “big picture” mentality, and gives hundreds of thousands of reasons.
“It is important that we see that human issues – needs, challenges and policy options – lie behind numbers,” said Doug Nelson, president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF).
Certainly, there is good news. The 2007 book says that compared with last year’s data, conditions improved significantly on four out of 10 measures of child well-being: child death rate, teen birth rate, high school dropout rate, and teens not in school and not working. Two other measures – the infant mortality rate and the teen death rate – improved slightly.
However, the numbers of low-birthweight babies, children living in families where no parent has full-time year-round employment, children in poverty and children in single-parent families have all increased significantly.
The wisdom – and ultimately the best use – of the Data Book lies in its point that while national measures based on rates and percentages are good for tracking increases and decreases over time, such “overall” measures may “mask the magnitude of some of the problems.”
This year, by charting discrepancies in child well-being by race/ethnicity, state, and the actual number of children affected, the report makes the less palatable data more clear.
For example: While the teen birth rate declined by 15 percent from 2000 to 2004, to 41 babies per 1,000 females ages 15-19, the rate for African-American teens remained high: 63 per 1,000. That was topped only by the rate of 83 per 1,000 among Hispanics/Latinos.
What’s more, the teen birth rate for all females ages 15-19 varied from a low of 18 per 1,000 in New Hampshire to a high of 63 in Texas. That translates to 51,389 teen births in Texas in 2004. (Data in the book come from 2004 and 2005, depending on what’s available.)
Time and again, the 2007 report underscores such disparities, noting that on all 10 measures, “the rates of the worst states are approximately two to four times those of the best states.”
That is an admonition and a challenge, especially in light of the fact that this year for the first time, the report was released at a news conference in a congressional office building.
From that symbolic location, perhaps legislators could better hear the foundation’s calls for more financial support for legal guardians caring for children who would otherwise enter foster care, and for funding a national system to collect deeper, more uniform and more reliable state data on how children – particularly those in the child welfare system – are faring.