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Opinions about children and families are legion. What are the facts? In particular, what set of facts can people from varied political, social, and religious backgrounds agree upon? Different people may reach different conclusions based on the same set of facts, but without a common understanding of basic trends, agreement is unlikely.

Child indicators are statistics that describe the well-being of children and their families over time and across social and demographic sub-groups. Some examples of familiar social indicators include the following:

  • The birth rate among teens aged 15 to 19 years old declined from 90 births per 1,000 females in 1960 to 50 in 1986 and then rose to 62 in 1991. By 1993, the rate had declined very slightly to 60.
  • The proportion of children living below the poverty level declined during the post-war years, falling from 27 percent in 1960 to 15 percent in 1970, but then rising to 22 percent in 1993. Among married couple families, 12 percent of children are in poverty, compared with 54 percent of children in female-headed families.

Other child indicators measure health, substance use, academic achievement, and the characteristics of families in which children live.

The field of child indicators, moribund during the 1980s while society was changing, has been catching up in the past several years. A conference held in November of 1994 brought together nearly 100 policymakers and academics from a wide range of disciplines to discuss ways to improve the stock of child indicators.

Conference participants noted a variety of gaps, including a lack of indicators for positive behaviors, a dearth of indicators for middle childhood, and a need for indicators that cover a broader array of topics. Participants also agreed that child outcomes need to be measured across a broad array of domains and age groups. In some cases, however, it is a challenge to turn a construct into a concrete measure. For example, what constitutes positive development? What behaviors or attitudes on the part of youth are viewed by researchers and the public as clear indicators of positive development? Volunteering, exercise, recycling, spirituality, and closeness to parents were among the measures suggested.

In addition to measures of child outcomes, many participants thought that community and family process measures also need to be tracked. This is particularly true when research clearly indicates the relevance of a construct to children's development. Thus, because poverty and family structure are clearly related to children's development, these represent important indicators of child well-being. However, for many contextual and family process constructs known to affect children's development, such as family relationships and childrearing practices, we currently lack valid and reliable measures that can be used as indicators. What constitutes effective parenting? What components of family relationships should be assessed? How can we assess them? Can we measure parenting practices in a way that is comparable for preschool, elementary, and adolescent children?

Several participants noted the need for measures that represent children's experiences over time, not simply at a single point in time. For example, long-term poverty has been found to be more significant for children's development than short-term poverty. The need for measures that foresee future trends was also noted, e.g., children's experience with high technology, such as personal computers.

Another critical topic is the limited availability of indicators at and below the state level. Some states (see the article by Nancy Dunton in this issue) have moved forward energetically to produce goals and indicators for their own states. Kids Count, produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, provides comparable data for all states annually; however, the range of topics that it is currently feasible to assess for states is quite limited. The Casey Foundation has funded numerous attempts to increase the range of available indicators. At present, however, there continues to be a lack of comparable data for all states that cover a broad range of child outcome domains, that are both positive and negative, and that assess outcomes across the age range from infancy to adolescence.


Further Reading

Brown, B. V. (1994). Indicators of children's well-being: A review of current indicators based on data from the federal statistical system (Special Report No. SR60A, pp. 37-80). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, Institute for Research on Poverty.

Moore, K. A. (1994). Criteria for indicators of child well-being (Special Report No. SR60A, pp. 2-18). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, Institute for Research on Poverty.

A summary of the 1994 conference proceedings and a set of the papers presented at the conference can be obtained from the Institute for Research on Poverty by calling 608-262-6359 and requesting IRP Special Report Series, SR-60.

The first national indicators report, Trends in the well-being of America's children and youth: 1995, is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office.

This lack is particularly salient at a time when program funds are being cut and programs are increasingly being placed under state control. Tracking child well-being across states provides a rudimentary means to monitor the development and well-being of children at a time of major policy and fiscal changes.

Since the 1994 conference, numerous issues identified there have received attention. A national indicators report has been completed that implements the recommendations of the conference to the extent possible with existing data; a second report is planned.

Increased coordination across Federal agencies has been facilitated by the initiation of the Forum on Child and Family Statistics. The Forum consists of the heads of the Census Bureau, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Center for Health Statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the Chief Statistician of the United States. Agency heads are meeting twice annually. In between these formal meetings, agency staff members are moving forward with projects to develop better data and disseminate data more effectively. The focus of the Forum goes beyond indicator data, but the inter-agency collaboration that the Forum exemplifies is moving the child indicators field forward very rapidly. Thus, after a period of inattention, the topic of child indicators is benefiting from a substantial increase in interest and effort.

Child Trends, Inc. is a nonprofit research firm that focuses on children and families. It was established in January 1979, with initial support from the Foundation for Child Development. Child Trends' primary goal is to improve the quality, scope, and use of research and statistical information concerning America's children.

Kristin A. Moore, Ph.D.
Brett V. Brown, Ph.D.
Child Trends, Inc.
4301 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 100
Washington, DC 20008
Tel: 202-362-5580
Fax: 202-362-5533

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