2017 Race for Results Follow-Up: We shouldn’t depend on data for the whole story
The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently released their 2017 Race for Results report, highlighting persistent disparities for children in immigrant families across the country. As a KIDS COUNT grantee, we jointly supported its release by composing our own press release comparing District-level trends and realities to those felt collectively by children of color and children in immigrant families across the nation.
According to the data, District children in immigrant families, when compared to their peers in other states, are generally “doing better.” For example, around 40% of DC’s children in immigrant families, compared to 53% nationwide are living in poverty. Data also shows that our children are enrolled in early childhood education (ECE) programs at a significantly higher rate than the national average (82% vs. 59%, respectively). We can attribute this notably higher percentage to the city’s inclusive policies and programs that exist to support our children, such as universal Pre-K for 3- and 4- year-olds. Furthermore, District children are not just “doing better” when they are young, but we see indicators of success as they grow and develop. For example, more young adults (19 – 26 years) in the District are either working or in school when compared to the rest of the country (94% vs. 84%, respectively).
On one hand, the data is promising because it shows that we’re capable of increasing access and promoting equity through intentional policy-making. At the same time, it’s not a wise approach to rely on data alone - because doing so does not account for the varying experiences of the over 28,000 children growing up in very diverse immigrant families throughout DC. The chart below provides a more detailed view of the diverse range of District residents. While it’s helpful to see where many of our adult immigrants were born, this chart fails to provide information about their well-being. We'd have to look beyond quantitative data to get a better picture of the needs of immigrants in our community.
While DC Action advocates and provides policy leadership, we don’t work directly with children and their families. That’s why it was important for me to speak with two of our community partners to get firsthand knowledge on how they’re faring. I spoke to staff and executive directors from Jubilee Jumpstart and Asian American Youth Leadership Empowerment And Development (AALEAD). My conversations with them underscored the problems that may arise when we interpret data in a vacuum. During our conversations, it quickly became clear that while the data indicates that DC children are faring better than children in other cities and states, this region struggles to effectively address the varying needs of culturally and ethnically diverse residents.
I first spoke with Neel Saxena, Executive Director of AALEAD. Neel emphasized a need for culturally appropriate support services that are equipped to serve children and families speaking languages that are less prevalent in DC. He also shared his concerns around the lack of existing mental health and substance abuse resources for Asian families, citing that even agencies known for working with non-English speaking families were unable to provide sufficient direction. Finally, he highlighted the difficulties many Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants face when trying to navigate formal processes such as setting up a bank account and securing a government issued ID.
Dee Dee Parker Wright, Executive Director of Jubilee Jumpstart, shared that their families face similar barriers. During our conversation, she referenced the DC Language Access Act of 2004’s Language Access Program. Though Ms. Wright believes this program has the potential to be a very helpful resource for DC families, at present it is too clunky and difficult for families to utilize on a regular basis. Jubilee Jumpstart provides a dual language early child care and education program that effectively engages caregivers and works hard to ensure parents are connected to the support services that fit their needs. The stories we’ve heard from parents who have directly benefitted from the family engagement specialists make it clear that these knowledgeable and culturally-competent personnel are invaluable. Unfortunately, there are many more children and families who could benefit from high-quality, dual language programs like Jubilee Jumpstart’s.
Understanding the nuanced challenges that immigrant families face when navigating District services illuminates the fact that disparity exists in ways that does not always come through in our data. While it appears that children in immigrant families “do better” than their peers in other states, their families still struggle to find culturally appropriate supports that have the capacity to meet their needs. That’s why, in the upcoming year, it’s my goal (and the goal of DC Action) to continue identifying where we are falling short in addressing disparities and inequities across the District. As a city, we must think critically about what inclusivity and equitable access means so that all DC families have the resources they need, regardless of races/ethnicity, language spoken or documentation status.
 Migration Policy Institute (2017). State Immigration Data Profiles, District of Columbia. Retrieved from: https://www.migrationpolicy.org/data/state-profiles/state/demographics/DC#top.