Indices of child well-being are needed because it is too easy for us to focus on narrow aspects of well-being and lose sight of the whole child. Ideally, summary indices like the CWI give us the means to evaluate each need, strength, advance, and inequality that we observe in particular domains in the larger context of the whole child. And they compel us to evaluate how our children are doing overall rather than narrowly defining success as higher math scores or lower obesity rates. It is too easy, in fact, to purchase success in one domain with decline in another as we direct limited temporal and financial resources towards the concern du jour.
To describe the condition of children as a whole, a summary index must reflect all major domains of well-being with indicators that adequately reflect each domain. When significant components are left out or poorly operationalized, the index is incomplete or inaccurate, and trends and group comparisons based on it will often be misleading. This can lead to poor decisions and poor policy, so the stakes are not small.
It is useful to see child well-being through the lens of history. The CWI was constructed with this in mind. While one may quibble with its content here and there, I am comfortable that it represents about the best one can do with the class of data elements that have been regularly collected since the mid-1970s. In planning for the future, however, I think we need to be looking at developing a limited set of complementary indices that take full advantage of the richer set of contemporary data sources available to us. I also suggest that future index work be based on frameworks that have grown directly out of child and youth development research rather than the Quality of Life Tradition.