Friday, September 25, 2009

Counting What Counts

By Frances Deviney, Ph.D.

New Census Bureau data shows that for the 10th year in a row Texas has the highest rate of uninsured children in the country, with one of every six kids uninsured. Nearly one of every four Texas kids lived in poverty in 2008 (e.g., $17,600 for a family of three).

As troubling as these numbers are, this data likely under represents the extent of the current problem for two important reasons.

First, the latest Census data does not cover 2009, and unemployment has been rising sharply in Texas this year, from 6.4 percent in January to 7.0 percent in July (the most recent month available). Economists tell us that poverty rises with rising joblessness and that increase is sharper for vulnerable groups like children.

Second, even once the data catches up to the recession, child poverty is likely even deeper than shown in these figures. The federal poverty measure is badly outdated and excludes many families struggling to cover basic expenses, effectively disqualifying them from receiving available food or housing assistance.

The Measuring American Poverty Act would update the poverty measure to include more realistic expenses (including health care and child care) and help us to accurately measure the effectiveness of our poverty reduction programs, such as Food Stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Shouldn’t we know how many people really need help and whether our help does any good?

Decisionmakers need reliable, relevant information to get the best results from public programs, but our policymakers and administrators use antiquated measurements and data to make decisions and assess performance. To ensure our public structures reach the people who need them most, we need an accurate measure of poverty in America, and we need Americans to fill out their 2010 Census forms in the spring.

That is why we must plan early for the upcoming 2010 Census. Most people do not realize that the accuracy of data personally affects them. Most major federal funding decisions (and many state and local ones) rely at least in part on Census data, including funding for early childhood education, schools, roads, environmental protection, health care, and nutrition. And the number of representatives we have in Congress is directly related to an accurate count of our fast-growing population.

If you belong to a business or community service organization, you can partner with the 2010 Census to help increase participation, which will give your organization better data on customers or clients in your area. If you are an educator, elected official, part of a faith-based organization, or are simply a proud member of your community, you will be crucial in spreading the word about the importance of filling out the census forms next spring, ensuring Texas kids and families are accurately represented when decisions are made in Washington.

Most people understand the need for reliable, relevant data. Everyone from hospitals to businesses to sports teams rely on data collection and analysis to measure and improve their performance. None of these groups would be satisfied with outdated or incomplete measures of performance.

Improving the quality of data – counting what counts – helps ensure our public programs work and gives us the ability to evaluate them, continue to support them if they are effective, adjust them if needed, or eliminate them if they are ineffective. In short, good data leads to better decisions. Without them, decisionmakers are left in a vacuum, forced to either ignore growing problems or make changes based on assumption and anecdote.

Only by counting yourself in can you make sure that kids count too.
Deviney is director of Texas KIDS COUNT, a project funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and housed at the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Texas Lone Star Forum. 9/09