Indicators of Child, Family, and Community Connections. Introduction


This chartbook has been prepared for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and with the assistance of a panel of experts. Its purpose is to present examples of indicators of the social context of families that can be developed from currently available data, as well as to help identify critical gaps where such data are meager or do not yet exist. The chartbook does not seek to provide a comprehensive or exhaustive list of all available indicators, nor do these examples imply a judgment as to which are the most critical indicators to describe the family, instead, it is part of an exploratory effort to characterize families in their social context. This exploratory effort includes (1) synthesizing research on the multiple dimensions of the social context of families (see the Conceptual Framework in this volume); (2) identifying data sources and indicators to describe and monitor these dimensions (as summarized in this chartbook); and (3) identifying critical gaps in knowledge and data, as well as future directions for measuring and monitoring these dimensions (see discussion at end of this introduction, including references to the four papers prepared under this project).

The indicators in this chartbook expand the traditional set of indicators used to describe families, characterizing both the situation within families and how families relate to the community at large. A representative set of key indicators from the various social contexts of families are provided in this chartbook to illustrate the range of indicators as well as the value of the information that a broader effort might provide.

This chartbook differs in several ways from America’s Children and other recurring indicator volumes. This project is an exploratory effort, and an important goal was to uncover data gaps. Thus, consideration of indicators was not limited strictly to measures from nationally representative data sets, or data that were recent or recurring, but rather included other measures of interest for which the data may be less than perfect. In addition, the list of measures presented in this chartbook does not represent a committee consensus as to the best measures; rather it is an illustrative list of the types of indicators that would be important for the domains listed below.

The indicators were selected through a process that involved multiple steps, including a thorough review of research and data sources, development of a conceptual framework to guide the selection of indicators, and input from a panel of experts. Selection criteria were then applied, resulting in 110 potential indicators, of which 25 are presented in this chartbook. The list focused primarily on measures that were readily available, due the relatively small scale of this project. The steps in the process and the criteria applied are detailed below.

A review of the literature was conducted on the social context of families, including reviews of research in the domains of family structure, labor market participation, family functioning, volunteerism and civic/neighborhood involvement, youth development, religiosity, and social connections. A review of data sources was also conducted which identified sources in each of these areas, the periodicity of data collections, the availability of data for population groups of children, and family background characteristics. From these reviews of research and data, a conceptual framework document was developed which outlined and described the most salient research pertaining to developing indicators of the social context of families. The development of the conceptual framework and a preliminary list of potential indicators was the first step in exploring what would ideally be included in the final chartbook.

The second step was to select and assemble a panel of experts to provide additional expertise and a variety of viewpoints to help inform the decision of which indicators would be presented. The primary objective of this review was to gather a broad range of perspectives, rather than to reach complete consensus. The expert panel reviewed the conceptual framework and the recommended list of indicators (see Acknowledgements), as well as recommended additional topics of potential measurement. Based on the panel’s suggestions, additional potential indicators and data sources were identified and located. Subsequently, 25 indicators were selected based on the following criteria:

  • Adequate coverage of each domain of the conceptual framework and maintaining a balance across the domains;
  • Strength of the research on the indicator’s relationship to child and family well-being;
  • Representation of both parent and child perspectives;
  • Preference for family-based rather than individual-based indicators;
  • Inclusion of both attitudes and behaviors;
  • Variability in the indicator;
  • Data quality and currency, with preferences for data collections using nationally representative samples, periodic versus one time collections, recent data, and for data sets allowing analysis by parental status;
  • Policy interest or relevance;
  • Importance to the expert panel; and
  • Whether the indicator would make a unique contribution to portraying how families connect to each other and to the world around them.

The final list of indicators were organized into six broad areas:

Family Structure. Indicators in this area include a traditional measure of living arrangements, as well as more complex measures capturing an array of familial relationships:

  • Children’s living arrangements, Family structure change, Families with grandparents who live nearby, Births to unmarried teens

Family Functioning. Specific measures examine amount of family time together and quality of relationships:

  • Parental warmth and affection, Positive parent-adolescent relationships, Parental awareness of adolescents friends and activities, Time spent with parents, Contact with nonresident parents

Family, Work, and Child Care. This broad area includes traditional measures of employment status and hours of work for both parents, as well as measures pertaining to the impact of job stress:

  • Parental employment by family structure, Work-family stress, Family income, Patterns of child care

School Involvement and Civic Engagement. These measures include parental and student engagement with child's school, and family and student civic engagement:

  • Parental involvement in school, Volunteering as a family, Student participation in community service, Parental voting, Youth connection to school peers, School supportiveness

Religiosity. Indicators of religiosity include a measure of participation in religious services, as well as a measure of participation in a broader group of religious activities as a family.

  • Parental religious service attendance, Adolescent participation in religious activities with their families

Social Connections. These measures describe the extent to which families have a sense of community in their neighborhoods and among friends:

  • Neighborhood community, Community of friends, Concern for safety, Residential mobility

Each indicator includes a figure that highlights the data for the total population as well as for one subgroup. Subgroups were chosen based upon the availability of subgroup data, the salience of the subgroup to the indicator, and upon a review of the data so that interesting differences across population groups were highlighted. A data table accompanies each indicator, typically presenting several subgroups. The indicator text describes patterns in the data, and all differences mentioned are statistically significant, except where noted.

The data that have been chosen for each indicator were carefully selected for quality and currency. However, it is not possible to present each indicator systematically for the same years, or for the same subgroups, since the availability of the data varies by data set. This indicator volume is intended only to represent examples of indicators that are possible given currently available data, rather than a complete and comparable set of indicators.

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