Indicators of Child, Family, and Community Connections. Data Gaps


While the indicators in this chartbook make important strides in describing the social context of families, gaps remain in our ability to measure and report on the domains listed above. In some cases currently available data are insufficient to measure an important concept. In other cases data may be available but additional conceptual work is needed to define an appropriate measure. In addition, for some important constructs such as family structure, measures are widely available but defined inconsistently across data sets. There are also gaps that reach across all of the areas of investigation, such as our ability to present data on trends over a consistent time period, across a consistent set of population groups and across cultures, or by stage of family development. The following section identifies gaps within each domain by comparing the critical measurement areas discussed in the conceptual framework or suggested by the expert panel with available data and measures. Additional gaps became apparent while working with the data for this chartbook.

Examples of Gaps Within the Domain of Family Structure

  • A basic indicator to accurately portray the complexity of family composition in America today is lacking. There is no current source of data available that adequately combines information on whether the parents are married or cohabitating, whether they are biological, step, or adoptive parents of the children in their household, and whether other relatives are living with the family in the same household. The National Health Interview Survey is developing such a cross-sectional measure. Furthermore, additional measures are needed to reflect the complexity of not only measuring trends over time, but also tracking families longitudinally. Some currently available data sets have some of these pieces, for some years, but no one data set can yet present this complete portrait on a regular basis over time.
  • It is not currently possible to define family structure consistently across data sets that address the social context of families. This makes it impossible to accurately compare family types across indicators.
  • Many indicators in this report rely on data for which it is difficult, and in some cases impossible, to analyze with families or parents as the unit of analysis. Surveys often use the household head as the respondent and reference person for household relationships, but this procedure does not always accurately identify whether other members of the household are parents of children in the household. Therefore, special analyses were needed requiring different assumptions across data sets in order to create estimates for parents. In some data sets, such as the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, it was not possible to portray parents at all, but only adults.
  • We lack both data and measures to fully reflect the process of couple formation and related changes in patterns of courtship and dating, attitudes toward marriage and cohabitation, sexual relationships prior to marriage, and barriers to marriage. (See the paper written for this project by Steven Nock, The New Chronology of Union Formation: Strategies for Measuring Changing Pathways for a strategy to develop such measures). Similarly, the indicators in this volume do not address the growing proportion of families that are stepfamilies resulting from remarriages.
  • Family structure transitions are known to be stressful on families, yet the measure available in the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics which is included in this chartbook, combines divorce and remarriage along with births and adoptions over a two-year period in a family's life. A more finely-tuned measure of transitions is needed that would separate entrances and departures from unions, such as marriage and divorce, and the entrances of new family members (including births/adoptions and immigration) as well as departures from the family (including deaths, and those leaving home) over a longer period of time in the life of a family.
  • Data that capture marriage and divorce events at the subnational level are currently not readily available. Counting Couples, a forum sponsored by the Federal Inter-Agency Forum on Child and Family Statistics has identified several targets of opportunity for improving these data, but significant changes are several years off.

Examples of Gaps Within the Domain of Family Functioning

  • Marital quality is key to healthy family functioning, yet measures of marital quality are just now being developed and have not yet been fielded in national surveys.
  • Available measures of family conflict, including punishment, child abuse and domestic violence lack rigor and currency. Better measures need to be developed and fielded in such a way that biases are minimized in order to adequately monitor this critical area of family functioning
  • There is anecdotal evidence that parental stress is increasing, and that mothers are particularly stressed. New ways of incorporating biological measures of stress within surveys are being explored, and could be extremely useful for the study of stress among parents in various social contexts in the future.
  • Research demonstrates that children who are exposed to parental risk behaviors such as smoking, drug and alcohol abuse are at higher risk of developing these habits themselves. Creating indicators of parental risk behaviors in the home for children from existing data can be done, but it requires complex and time-consuming analyses.
  • An index of turbulence in residence, school, and family structure would be an important contribution to this study, yet it is not possible to create from one existing data source.
  • Family routines, rituals, and time together are key components of family functioning (see the paper written for this project by Lina Guzman and Susan Jekeliek, Family Time) but there are few such measures fielded in national surveys. Furthermore, measures are needed at the family level rather than at the individual level in order to capture interactions between family members.
  • Although the chartbook contains indicators on parenting characteristics that have been related to positive outcomes for children, such as warmth and awareness, cultural variation in effective parenting is not captured in currently available measures.
  • While a general measure of parent-child communication quality is available, measures of specific types of communication are needed.
  • Parents provide gate keeping, resource management, and networking functions for their family, yet these functions are not captured in available national surveys.

Examples of Gaps Within the Domain of Family, Work and Child Care

  • While an attitudinal measure of work-family stress is included in this volume, consistent trend data on the number of hours spent at work and the corresponding effect on the number of hours spent with family, for both mothers and fathers, are not available. In addition, commuting times to work are increasing for adults, but this information is not available by parental status, which limits the ability to analyze the extent to which commuting infringes upon family time.
  • More measures are needed of the various ways in which parents arrange their work and child care schedules, and the extent to which the diverse arrangements made by parents reflect parental preferences or economic necessity. For example, while there are data showing the widespread use of care by relatives, there are not good data on the extent to which use of this care is influenced by availability of relatives outside the household, cultural values, personal preferences, high costs of formal care, lack of access to subsidies, or other factors. Similar questions can be asked about the use of multiple arrangements, after-school care, work during non-traditional hours, part-time work, etc.
  • More generally, indicators of parental satisfaction with child care arrangements have been developed for small scale studies, and have been incorporated in the National Household Education Survey of 2001, but they fail to correct for parental biases toward their current child care provider, so that a true national assessment of parental satisfaction with child care remains elusive.
  • There are non-economic costs associated with nonparental child care that may impact family strengths, such as time family members spend together, for which indicators need to be developed.

Examples of Gaps Within the Domain of School Involvement and Civic Engagement

  • Detailed data on youth civic engagement are not available after 1999, the last time that the Youth Supplement was administered of the National Household Education Survey. Data collection in this area is needed in the future in order to monitor trends over time. New studies on civic engagement that incorporate promising and broader measures of civic engagement, such as The Civic and Political Health of the Nation: A Generational Portrait, can only be analyzed at the individual level, and parents and youth are not identifiable separately, nor can families be analyzed as a unit.
  • More specific data are needed on families volunteering together, including the number and ages of family members involved, and whether the volunteering is initiated by the family or by an organization to which they belong, such as a school, church or community service organization. The stages in a family life cycle during which families are likely to volunteer is also important to know. For these reasons, data need to be collected on volunteering with families as the unit of analysis.
  • Family structure variables differ between the November Current Population Survey, the data source used for the voting behavior indicator, and the March Current Population Survey, which is typically used to portray family structure. Thus, it is not possible to portray voting behavior with the same family structure definitions across months of the same survey.

Examples of Gaps Within the Domain of Religiosity

  • There is no current source of trend data on youth participation in religious-oriented youth groups. Monitoring the Future used to ask the question, but stopped including the question after 1996.
  • Data and measures are needed on the prevalence of couples that do not share religious affiliation, and the affiliation of their children. Indicators are needed on how family religiosity changes over the life cycle of the family, but data are rarely collected this way.
  • Current measures of religiosity are largely limited to attendance at religious services, affiliation, and importance of religion. A much more diverse set of measures is needed to accurately portray current family religious practices (see the paper written for this project, The Measurement of Family Religiosity and Spirituality, by Laura Lippman, Erik Michelsen, and Eugene Roehlkepartain).

Examples of Gaps Within the Domain of Social Connections

  • For three of the four key indicators within the domain of social connections, including neighborhood community, community of friends, and concern for safety, data are only available for individuals. Data are not available for parents, youth, or families.
  • Although a measure of residential mobility in the last year is included in the chartbook, data sources do not allow analyses of mobility over a longer time period.
  • An indicator of residential segregation by socioeconomic status needs to be developed.
  • Better measures of social networks and community resources need to be fielded in national surveys, including those that are valid for various cultural and immigrant groups.

Across all of the areas of study, it is possible to develop some indicators of trends, either from published data or by conducting new analyses. Included in this chartbook is a table that identifies the availability of trend data for each indicator. For the majority of the indicators, some trend measures could be developed through further analyses, though trends could not be monitored over a consistent time period across indicators. For a few indicators, trend data are not currently available at all.

Just as important, but even less available than trend data, is detail for each indicator by the family life cycle stage, as pictured in Chart B of the Conceptual Framework. In order to understand how and when families interact with their environments and how these interactions affect children in families, the age of children in the family needs to be known. It is also important to track changes over the life course of a family by developing longitudinal measures of key constructs that are already measured in cross-sectional surveys.

A number of important issues and potential avenues for further development are discussed in a series of papers written by noted researchers in the field of family indicators. These papers are available in a separate volume and include:

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