I remember the first KIDS COUNT document that was released 25 years ago! The Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) was ahead of the times, a pioneer in understanding the importance of data collection and analysis. I remember those early years when community and youth advocates would meet with influential policymakers to tell their stories. Their response was that it was great to hear the stories, but where was the data?
Lack of data often became code for not doing anything, for burying one’s head in the sand regarding the issues and the challenges confronting us, and more importantly, the children and families we represent. Too often lack of data just led to more meetings, perhaps a task force, and then too often inaction.
But AECF understood the importance and power of data. Once KIDS COUNT hit our nation, as youth advocates walked onto Capitol Hill and their state representatives’ offices, they walked in with their copy of KIDS COUNT in hand. Finally, we had the data that we needed to confront our daily reality with greater confidence and rigor. It was clear that data mattered.
As the years went on, KIDS COUNT rose to a new level of sophistication. Much more than numbers and statistics combined with powerful stories, the data became the voice of our nation’s children living in fragile and distressed communities. Policymakers could no longer bury their heads in the sand and say show me the numbers.
Today, in many circles, being data-driven is the expectation. Not only does it matter, you must have it. All collective impact models are driven against baseline data. High performing organizations must use data to drive better and improved outcomes for their clients.
Practitioners and advocates have integrated words like ‘metrics’ and ‘return on investment’ into their vocabulary. And more recently, without data there would be no Social Impact Fund or Pay for Success model, the newest idea to tackle intense social problems in our country.
Yet, as I note this I also must ask: Have our data collection efforts and sophistication helped close the wealth gap? Have these efforts lessened ethnic disparities in access to opportunities? While in some areas our nation is stronger, we have also witnessed the retrenching of some of our success. In too many areas, we see that the needle has barely moved in a positive direction, and in some cases we have lost ground.
What is needed now, as we move forward in the future are mechanisms to communicate the meaning and the power of what we have counted. KIDS COUNT data, analysis, and advocacy are what we need to change and influence policy in every neighborhood, city, county, state and our nation. As our work gives voice to our nation’s voiceless children, and as our collective voices rise, the dialog will change. We must keep our eyes on the prize as we influence our nation’s attitudes and change policies in support of our deserving families and youth. The solution is not just one program or one policy, but big change.