Reaching Children At Risk with a New Look at State Data

BlogEarly ChildhoodJul 15 2013

In this new era of data-based decision making, a few states and the District of Columbia are using a unique strategy for mapping both the need and use of services designed to reach vulnerable young children and their families.

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This type of “Risk and Reach” assessment looks geographically at the needs of young children and their families in relation to available resources. Using child- and family-level indicators of “risk” such as poverty status, low birth weight, and low maternal education at the regional- or county-level helps policymakers identify geographic pockets of high need. These findings are then compared with “reach” data that may include the type and location of selected early childhood programs, capacity, and utilization rates, which can also be tracked over time in order to identity trends or emerging patterns.

Pennsylvania was the first to implement this type of assessment in 2006, the District of Columbia conducted risk and reach assessments annually between 2009 and 2012, and more recently Maryland and Louisiana have conducted similar types of statewide assessments. Child Trends conducted the risk and reach assessments in both Washington and Maryland.

Though the risk and reach assessments conducted in these states have not replaced the states’ need for a longitudinal data system, they have helped to shed light on some critical statistics about vulnerable young children and their families, which have been important for informing policy decisions in these states.

For example, Pennsylvania’s current risk and reach assessment found that children under the age of five in 37 of the state’s 67 counties were at moderate to high risk for school failure. Yet Pennsylvania can also report that over one third of all children under the age of five have access to a quality state- or federally-funded early care or education program in the state. Washington D.C. found in its most recent Risk and Reach assessment that the city has the capacity to serve over 90 percent of all children ages three to five in preschool programs, but only has the capacity to serve 20 percent of infants and toddlers ages birth to two with early care and education programs.

The ultimate goal for most states is a data system than can provide information about children and families across multiple agencies and programs, that allows for a more complete and faster analysis to help guide funding decisions. For programs and services that address the needs of young children, many states are developing data systems that are designed to link early care and education programs and the professionals who work in those programs. Child Trends is the hub to the Early Childhood Data Collaborative, a network of organizations assisting states with the design and development of statewide early childhood longitudinal data systems.

State policymakers often face the difficult dilemma of figuring out how to allocate scarce resources to those who need them most. Yet when it comes to reaching vulnerable young children and their families with public programs, supports, and services, state policymakers do not often have access to the data they need to make these important decisions. The risk and reach assessments and planned longitudinal data systems will provide valuable information to guide decision making on how best to serve our most vulnerable children and families.