Every community collects a substantial amount of data on their children and youth. Administrative sources include school records, educational assessments, vital statistics (birth and death records), police data on reports and arrests, child welfare and public assistance records, health surveillance systems, emergency room admissions data, and so on (Coulton and Hollister, 1998; Coulton, 1995). In addition, data from the decennial census provide detailed economic and demographic information on youth, their families, and their neighborhoods.
These data have a number of advantages in addition to their ubiquity. First, someone has already paid for their collection. If they are not already available to the public, they can often be made available at a relatively modest cost. Second, many of these sources are capable of generating indicator estimates down to the neighborhood level. This is particularly important for community programs for youth, many of which serve limited geographic areas within the larger community. Neighborhood-level data allow programs to make strategic location decisions to areas of greatest need, assess needs and strengths in neighborhoods they already serve, and track changes in these characteristics over time. The last is particularly important for community programs for youth when their goals extend beyond program participants to include changes at the neighborhood level (e.g., reductions in gang activity).
Third, administrative data provide information that cannot be gathered using existing community surveys on youth development. Standardized education assessments, for example, are important measures that are not covered by such surveys. Neighborhood characteristics (e.g., crime levels, teen birth rates) derived from administrative reporting systems provide indicators of social settings that are more objective in the sense that they are not dependent, as the surveys are, on youth perceptions.
Some potential problems with these data should be kept in mind. First, many of these sources can have problems with data quality and consistency (Coulton and Hollister, 1998; Coulton, 1998). For example,
Youth Indicators 1996: Trends in the Well-Being of American Youth (<http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=96027>)
America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being: 2000 (<http://www.childstats.gov>)