March 9, 2015 — There’s a popular adage about the use of data and how to apply facts when advancing a particular cause or agenda. It is: While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no one is entitled to their own facts.
In Michigan and across the nation, we are fortunate that the facts that child and family advocates rely on to spark conversation and foster public decision-making are a product of the Michigan League for Public Policy’s Kids Count in Michigan Data Book. Released early each year, the report gives us a reliable annual review of child well-being with a profile of every county and the city of Detroit.
We use it throughout the year to track progress and shortcomings, and point out where public resources should be focused and public support galvanized. Due to Michigan’s long recessionary struggles, it comes as no surprise that our state’s bleak experiences with child poverty has been one of the main yearly talking points and in particular as cited in the 2015 report, which found a 35- percent increase in child poverty over the past six years. The report also references disturbing trends in the numbers of children identified and confirmed as children of abuse and neglect. With economic stressors comes family instability, often accompanied by incidences of domestic violence, substance abuse and behavioral health problems, which can be connected to child maltreatment.
The information compiled in the Kids Count report has been used by policymakers, journalists, advocates and the public at large to detail and discuss the enormity of poverty and poor child outcomes at home and across the state. At Michigan’s Children, the report has served to influence recommended state policies in areas of economic security, child health, family and community life and education.
Staff here routinely answers press inquiries to examine local data against the effectiveness even availability of programs serving children and families. Working with one Northern Michigan journalist recently, Vice President for Programs Michele Corey advised taking a hard look at a local rise in foster care rates which appeared to run counter to a decline in those rates across the state. What’s behind the numbers? Are family supports lacking locally that could improve family stability? What could account for this change?
Long-time health officer Marcus Cheatham, formerly with the Ingham County Health Department and now lead officer with the Mid-Michigan District Health Department in Stanton, says Kids Count’s value arrives from helping to drive needed public conversations that can lead people to care and make a difference.
“It’s a chance to show policymakers what those of us in human services see all the time: that the most vulnerable among us have the fewest resources and are often left behind,” Cheatham said.
Using specific county-by-county data to drive difficult community conversations is critical, he said. “People are often surprised that Michigan has so much rural poverty — it’s not just a Flint thing,” he added. “Also, many people don’t think their community has issues — they think its somewhere else. So showing them can get them going.”
Cheatham’s insights highlight the value that Kids Count data has when used by community activists and average citizens, too. Unless we become familiar with what the data shows about our own communities, and use it to spark conversations with those who can make policy changes, the information won’t do what it’s intended to do – make a positive difference in the lives of our children and their futures.
So arm yourselves with the latest facts here. Check out our Issues Brief, “Kids Count in Michigan Data Book 2015: Using data to Inform Current Policy Priorities,” and explore our “Take Action” pages for tips on becoming an effective advocate.
Then contact your elected representatives to educate them about the state of child well-being at home. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper about what the data says in your community. Talk to your friends, neighbors and family about what the information tells us. Start a conversation that could lead to making a difference in the future of all of our children. In this way, the value of Kids Count will linger long after the report is released.
– Teri Banas