The Well-Being of Measuring Well-Being

Print More

Since the social indicators movement began in the 1970s, there has been explosive growth in efforts to measure the quality of people’s lives, including the lives of youth. Myriad federal- and state-level report cards, surveys and longitudinal studies assess everything from graduation rates and the number of childhood asthmatics to child poverty and suicide attempts.

The U.S. Departments of Justice, Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services all collect data on children and their families, as do the Census Bureau, many major universities and several advocacy organizations.

While this has been helpful in many ways, one unintended consequence is that the plethora of instruments and a lack of coordination among collection efforts has made it increasingly difficult to discern whether the nation’s children are doing better or worse, and in comparison to what.

Some experts say most of the measures are too proprietary, too geographically specific or too narrowly focused on measuring only one indicator of well-being, such as delinquency.

“There was no way to look at those indicators and identify well-being as a single domain, or to put it together into a single number showing how child well-being changed over time,” said Harold Liebowitz, director of strategic communication for the Foundation for Child Development (FCD), which developed the Child Well-Being Index.

Others say indicators designed to yield measures for the nation’s children as a whole are too broad in scope to provide meaningful information at the local level. “National measures of child well-being tell you very little about what’s going on in any state,” said Bill O’Hare, coordinator of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT initiative. 

“It’s important, particularly given devolution, that we get better state-level measures of child well-being,” he said.
New Measures
In May, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) introduced the State Child Well-Being Research Act of 2007 (S. 1482), which calls for the development of yet another tool to measure youth well-being. It would amend the Social Security Act to require the secretary of Health and Human Services to “develop comprehensive indicators to assess child well-being in each state,” probably through a telephone survey. It would appropriate $20 million per year from 2008 through 2012.

Are child well-being experts in agreement over what the federal government should measure?

“I think there’s a lot of consensus on a bunch of good indicators,” O’Hare said. “I’m not sure there’s a consensus on exactly what the right set is or should be. But at this point, everyone agrees that we don’t have all we should.”

What we have are two well-established and evolving initiatives from which to draw expertise: FCD’s historically deep Child Well-Being Index (CWI), and the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 15-year-old KIDS COUNT initiative.

Child Well-Being Index
The CWI was conceived to work much like the Consumer Price Index, in that it monitors year-to-year conditions in hopes of affecting policy. The index was conceived by and remains under the direction of Ken Land, director of the Center for Demographic Studies at Duke University. FCD has funded the compilation and release of the CWI since 2004.

By mining data from several federal and federally funded sources, CWI divides 28 indicators – such as infant mortality and youth smoking rates – among seven domains: family economic well-being, health, safety/behavioral concerns, educational attainment, community connectedness, social relationships and emotional/spiritual well-being. Depending on the data available, the measurements go back to one of two “base years”: 1975 or 1985.

Those data are used to give each of the domains an annual value, on a 100-point scale, and to create an overall CWI value. The value for the base years is set at 100.

As with the Consumer Price Index, the annual values are compared with the base years. For example, using base year 1975, the overall CWI score for 2005 – the most recent year available – was 101.14, which means conditions improved slightly.

The CWI has remained relatively stagnant for the past three years, after a high of 102.19 in 2002. In 2005, the lowest domain value was children’s health (63.13), fueled by an increase in childhood obesity, according to Land. The highest domain value in 2005 was in community connectedness (125.96).
The CWI is “based on three decades of research on subjective well-being,” Land said. He acknowledges, however, that the measurement is limited. “Since we go back to 1975 … or 1985, depending on which comparisons we’re making, we’re stuck using data that go back that far,” he said. 

FCD and Land remain open to the idea of refining the CWI. At a 2006 conference on possible enhancements, suggestions included more closely examining ethnic disparities; establishing state-level CWIs; using alternative weighting approaches (the seven domains now get equal weight); and including new indicators focused on child development.

Since 1990, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT initiative has relied on federal measures that yield child well-being data at the state level. Its principal activity is the publication of the annual KIDS COUNT Data Book, which reports on 10 key indicators of child well-being in each state and ranks the states according to those indicators.

Online, the KIDS COUNT State-Level Data contains more than 100 indicators of child well-being, and is updated when new data are released. The KIDS COUNT federal data sources include:

• The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a health assessment of approximately 14,000 high schoolers conducted every two years.
• The Census Bureau’s Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, created to provide current data down to the level of counties and school districts. 
• The U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Programs, mandated by the No Child Left Behind law to provide education data for each state.

The foundation funds a national network of more than 50 state KIDS COUNT grantees, which provides more detailed state, county and local data on the well-being of the children in their communities. The grantees add that local data to the foundation’s Community-Level Information on Kids (CLIKS) system, which lets users access state-specific data from local sources, such as health departments, human service agencies and schools.

The richness of the content on CLIKS state pages is determined by each KIDS COUNT grantee. While West Virginia tracks only the 10 key indicators published in the annual data book, Pennsylvania reports using 253 indicators.

At the 2007 KIDS COUNT Conference for grantees in September, a presentation on upgrades to the CLIKS system was met with uproarious applause. Several grantees said the streamlined, more user-friendly system will guarantee regular updates of their data and make them more likely to present the public and policymakers with maps, graphics and publications based on those data.

Just how much influence are CWI, KIDS COUNT and the proposed new federal state-level measure likely to have on policymakers and decision makers? Youth advocates around the country regularly use the data in presentations to lawmakers.

According to O’Hare, surveys by KIDS COUNT over the past four years found that 80 to 90 percent of state legislators and their staffs said they knew about and use KIDS COUNT products, and that 50 to 60 percent believed KIDS COUNT has had some impact on public policy and public awareness.