JANUARY 2017

Measuring our children's well-being

Minnesota's Risk and Reach project takes a county-by-county look at potential risks to the healthy development of young children, and the reach of public services to address areas of need. Results of the project are now available in a special section of Minnesota Compass.

We sat down with project directors Elizabeth Carlson, director of the University of Minnesota Harris Training Program, and Richard Chase, senior research manager at Wilder Research, to learn a little more about how this information can help guide service providers, government staff, legislators, and others.

Q: Why is this information important?

We know that the physical, social, and economic health and well-being of adults is strongly influenced by experiences in early childhood. Children who experience adverse events often require interventions to build the skills they need to reach their potential. However, in Minnesota, most information on the experiences of young children has been reported only at the state level. Our project provides information for each county, including 12 risk factors and the reach of 8 public services to address them. This matters because our state is one of 13 that delivers services through a “state-supervised and county-administered” system. That is, state agencies set the rules, distribute funds, and monitor performance, but Minnesota counties are responsible for delivering social services, public health, and other services.

Q: What have been the reactions of service providers and county workers to the project's findings?

The report has generated a lot of interest and positive feedback from a range of state and county administrators, legislators, advocacy, and community groups. At the state level, the report serves as a starting place to advocate for data-driven decision-making and common measurement across departments. At the county and local level, people have been surprised to learn about their own and neighboring county strengths and needs and to learn which counties were at highest risk or had significant reach. For example, people have been surprised to learn that Ramsey county has one of the highest rates of poverty for children under age 6, and is the poorest among Twin Cities metro counties. Or, that only about a quarter of eligible children under age 6 are served by Head Start programs, with a huge range among counties from 4 percent to 95 percent. Groups of counties are using the report for joint planning.

Q: One reason people cite for lack of progress is lack of funding. Is more money the answer?

Basically, we lack knowledge about the budget for early childhood. An integrated view of the state budget would clarify the portion of budget allocated to early childhood, the sources of revenue, as well as possible strategies for the allocation of funds. An integrated early childhood budget, expanded report findings, and community input would contribute to a more strategic approach to early childhood service planning across agencies and budgets.

Q: How can we make early childhood services more effective?

Early childhood services first need to be a priority. A shift in thinking is needed to understand that long term gains in academic achievement, graduation rates, health and mental health, employment, and good citizenry begin prenatally. Supporting families in need serves all of us. Services can also be improved through interagency partnerships, coordinating efforts and use of funds that may increase efficiency and communication for families. Such state and community initiatives also need time for piloting, for adjustments and implementation, and, critically, for evaluation.

Q: What's next for the project?

Future directions include the need to provide more detailed data at a more local level than county. While we have some data about race, we would like it to be more comprehensive and to do additional breakdowns, for example, by neighborhood, income groups, school districts, and other subsets such as private and public funding, and comparative investment across counties. We welcome feedback and suggestions for use and improvement of the report!

Check out the new Risk and Reach section in Early Childhood now.

The Minnesota Early Childhood Risk and Reach project was funded by a grant from the Irving Harris Foundation to the University of Minnesota. The Minnesota report released last year was produced by a partnership including Wilder Research, the University of Minnesota (Harris Training Programs in the Center for Early Education and Development), and the Minnesota Departments of Education (MDE), Health (MDH), and Human Services (DHS).

Related reports and studies

Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation

Prenatal to Age 3 - A Comprehensive, Racially-Equitable Policy Plan for Universal Healthy Child Development

Championing Early Childhood Policies that Prevent Social, Economic, and Educational Inequities

How prevalent are family risk factors among Minnesota children who receive Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare?

School Readiness Report Card

Adverse Childhood Experiences in Minnesota: Findings & Recommendations based on the 2011 Minnesota Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System

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Minnesota Compass

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