Think Regionally, Measure Regionally, Act Regionally

BlogOct 5 2012

Last month, Venture Philanthropy Partners released a groundbreaking look at the status of children and youth in the National Capital Region (NCR) visit  Child Trends was honored to be VPP’s research partner in this effort.

The information contained on the  website and in the extended report by Child Trends can help practitioners and policymakers alike address concerns in the NCR.  By considering children’s well-being across a metro area, we gain a much richer and deeper understanding of the interplay of social and demographic factors occurring across communities, which may be missed in state-level analyses.  Findings from the reports will no doubt inform a number of critical conversations throughout this Region.

However, there are implications that stretch beyond the boundaries of the NCR.

  • More than 80 percent of America’s children live in metro areas.  Such regions will shape the experience of increasing numbers of children and families.
  • The face of suburbia is changing. Immigration is just one of several mega-trends that are redefining both urban centers and their suburbs.   While there is no single pattern that applies everywhere, suburbia is gaining more residents who are poor, and more who are non-white, and is experiencing both gains and losses in overall population, depending on the locale.  Poverty among children (the age-group where poverty is most prevalent) has spread both wide and deep.
  • Reinventing community identity. The immigration of families and children from around the globe has brought a burst of talent, cultural diversity, and challenges.  By literally transcending the limitations of traditional map boundaries, this framework of analysis offers the opportunity for communities to respond creatively in re-branding themselves for a more inclusive identity—a task that will not always be easy.
  • Our data systems have not caught up with the needs of communities.  A jumble of political jurisdictions makes up the NCR, as they do many metropolitan areas.  The problems of inconsistent, incompatible, and incomplete data hinder the ability to take a truly regional, comprehensive approach to assessing needs and planning responses.  Although some communities have taken great strides toward improvement on this front, there remains much to be done.

The NCR report provides a template for more meaningful analysis of children’s well-being within our nation’s metro areas.  While many communities are adopting outcomes-based, measurement-driven approaches to reporting on the well-being of their residents, few to date have taken a truly regional approach.

Here’s why we think regionalism is a path of the future:

  • Regionalism recognizes that communities are inter-connected by commerce, job commuting, recreation opportunities, child care facilities, and (increasingly in this era of expanded choice) schools.  Families may spend different parts of the life-cycle in different parts of the same metro region.  Overall quality of life (especially exposure to the arts, formal education, cultural events, dining, specialty retailers) is increasingly metro-driven.
  • More generally, communities of every size are becoming more focused on outcomes for children and families.  In some cases, the emphasis is on historically disadvantaged neighborhoods that must enlist a broad spectrum of partners to lift up prospects for the rising generation.  In other cases, the aim may be to maintain a community’s competitive edge as a diverse, family-friendly place to live and work.
  • Certainly there is no single pattern that describes metropolitan areas (central core, plus suburbs).  Indeed, there are substantial demographic differences across the major U.S. regions (Northeast, Midwest, South, and West).

In any case, having timely comprehensive data—informed by knowledge of what children and families need to thrive—is essential in planning for smart growth, including the need for housing, schools, services, and other infrastructure.

In partnership with VPP, Child Trends produced a wealth of aggregated, comparable data for children across the National Capital Region.  We would be delighted to apply this model to other metropolitan regions that seek to work across political jurisdictions to improve the lives of children and youth.