Longitudinal Surveys of Children

Background

For decision makers at all levels of government, the need to understand what influences the lives of children and youth and to assess the outcomes of policies that affect them has grown in recent years, along with rising pressure for accountability and increasing concern about the problems that affect America's children and youth.

This is a period of enormous change in the circumstances of children and youth, partly as a consequence, but also contributing to pervasive changes in family life. Although the share of children and adolescents in the general population is decreasing, the share of minority and immigrant children and youth is increasing. More children are being raised today in nontraditional families. A large fraction, perhaps as many as a quarter at any given time, live in poverty. An increasing share—now a large majority of all preschool children—receive care outside the home. Many children and youth are victims or perpetrators of crime. All of this is occurring in an era of shifting responsibility for the well-being of children and youth and in a world of increasing demands for greater competence in the workplace.

As growing numbers of policy makers turn to the federal statistical system to help guide them in the development of policies and programs for children and youth, longitudinal data on children hold the key to knowledge about the factors that impede or foster healthy development. Given this continuing interest in monitoring and understanding the lives of children and youth, the Committee on National Statistics and the Board on Children, Youth, and Families of the National



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--> Longitudinal Surveys of Children Background For decision makers at all levels of government, the need to understand what influences the lives of children and youth and to assess the outcomes of policies that affect them has grown in recent years, along with rising pressure for accountability and increasing concern about the problems that affect America's children and youth. This is a period of enormous change in the circumstances of children and youth, partly as a consequence, but also contributing to pervasive changes in family life. Although the share of children and adolescents in the general population is decreasing, the share of minority and immigrant children and youth is increasing. More children are being raised today in nontraditional families. A large fraction, perhaps as many as a quarter at any given time, live in poverty. An increasing share—now a large majority of all preschool children—receive care outside the home. Many children and youth are victims or perpetrators of crime. All of this is occurring in an era of shifting responsibility for the well-being of children and youth and in a world of increasing demands for greater competence in the workplace. As growing numbers of policy makers turn to the federal statistical system to help guide them in the development of policies and programs for children and youth, longitudinal data on children hold the key to knowledge about the factors that impede or foster healthy development. Given this continuing interest in monitoring and understanding the lives of children and youth, the Committee on National Statistics and the Board on Children, Youth, and Families of the National

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--> Research Council and the Institute of Medicine conducted a workshop on September 12 and 13, 1997, on longitudinal studies of children. The workshop was held to (1) examine conceptual and methodological challenges in surveys that collect longitudinal data on children and their families, (2) encourage and foster information sharing, and (3) support collaboration across otherwise independent longitudinal research initiatives on children and youth. Sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, the workshop brought together principal investigators from a number of major longitudinal surveys on children, other experts in the field, and representatives from federal government agencies. The Committee on National Statistics and the Board on Children, Youth, and Families have a longstanding interest in this issue. A workshop in 1994 on the integration of federal statistics on children and families was motivated by the pressing need for statistics to inform policy makers who formulate, implement, and analyze policies for children, youth, and families. At the conclusion of that workshop, participants stressed the importance of sustaining the debate on improving longitudinal surveys on children. A salient goal is to ensure that relevant data are collected and made available on a timely basis (National Research Council, 1995). Sixteen surveys were represented at the 1997 workshop. The surveys at the workshop are major longitudinal surveys that either concentrate solely on datasets of children or have a major component that involves data on children. Since the workshop was intended to serve as a forum for informal exchange among the participants, it was deemed appropriate to keep the number of surveys represented fairly small, in order to create a conducive atmosphere for discussion. The workshop participants consisted of the principal investigators of the surveys (or an appropriate representative), invited guests from organizations and federal agencies interested in the issues relevant to the study of children, and representatives from the sponsoring agency. All present were encouraged to contribute their viewpoints and participate in the workshop discussions. A list of participants and the surveys represented appears in the front of this report. The surveys represented at the workshop were selected on the basis of such factors as scope, design, and stage of completion, in order to obtain numerous perspectives. The surveys cover a wide range of substantive areas of child development and well-being, including health, education, delinquency and crime, child care, and participation in social welfare programs. The surveys represented at the workshop are in various stages of completion. Some have been in the field for many years; others are still in their early stages. A few are not yet in the data collection phase. Most, however, are in some stage of development or reassessment, in the initial planning stage, developing a supplement, or designing a follow-on protocol. The surveys vary in scope and span many age groups and segments of the population, including immigrant children and children in inner-city environments. Some surveys are nationally representative; others include multiple sites; and still others involve intensive data collection in a single site.