Developing State Indices of Child Well-Being

Dr. William OHare


The regular production and release of the national Child Well-Being Index (CWI) by Ken Land and his colleagues has been a significant development for the field of child indicators. It provides a clear way to monitor major trends in child well-being over time and differences among major groups of children. Moreover, the regular publication and public attention it garners heightens public awareness of children issues.

But many researchers, opinion-leaders, and policymakers are interested in the well-being of children at the state and local level. Therefore the usefulness of the index could be greatly enhanced is if it were made available at the state level. In this paper, I examine some of the key issues regarding development and use of child well-being indicators and indices at the state level.

Importance of States

There are two important trends I want to highlight as background for the discussion. First, while state governments have long made many important social policy decisions, over the past 15 years devolution has made states even more powerful actors in social policy decisions. Moreover, ideas like block-granting, which would further enhance the powers of states, remain close to the surface of on-going federalism discussions.1 If states are becoming more powerful actors in social policy decisions, it seems especially important for decision-makers to have data available at the state level.

Second, there is enormous variation across the states in child well-being, suggesting that a national index masks important geographic differences. Given these differences, national measures tell us very little about what is happening in any particular state or set of states. For each of ten key measures of child well-being, Table 1 shows how many states are statistically significantly different that the national measure. Most states are different on most measures. Table 1 shows that of the 500 possible comparisons of a state value with the corresponding national value (50 states times 10 measures) 339 are statistically different from the national measure.