This is the first in a series about 21st century families.

Q: What are 21st century challenges facing society?

A: In 1960, 19 percent of women with children younger than 6 years of age worked. By the turn of the century, the percentage had risen to 57 percent. From 1970 to 1990, single-parent families, usually women, rose from 11 percent to 26 percent. The percentage of baby boomers is causing the number of elderly Americans to grow rapidly.

Several significant objectives are recommended to determine public policy for the 21st century:

• Develop and implement a new measure of poverty that better reflects the income available to families for meeting basic needs.

• Use statistical sampling and estimation techniques to supplement the traditional head count, thereby producing more accurate and less expensive census data.

• Adopt as a new social norm the goal that all pregnancies should be consciously and clearly desired at the time of conception.

• Make investments to strengthen the infrastructure of the child-care system.

• Expand research on child care beyond the children being cared for to include the effects of child care on families, communities and schools.

• Pay primary, sustained attention to reducing the exposure of children and adolescents to high-risk settings.

• Undertake a process for evaluating promising preventative strategies that could lead to better understanding of specific violence problems and the interventions that can prevent and control them.

The preceding information and the rest of this article is from a publication titled “Challenges Facing a Changing Society.” The academy group advises the government about the effect of science and technology on American society. The group is comprised of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

The census is the basis for the distribution of federal and state funds for education, health, transportation, housing, community services and job training. Funds are allocated for geographic areas based on population and social and economic factors.

However, census data for several key issues is utilized by companies, for instance, when deciding where to build a business or special project. These issues are age, education, employment, housing-unit age, income, occupation, vehicles per household and commute to work.

One of the most important measures of social conditions is the poverty measure. It shows how many Americans are poor, and do not have the resources to meet basic needs. It is also used to establish eligibility for programs such as Medicaid, Medicare and food stamps. The poverty standard today is the same one that was defined in the early 1960s. The standard was the cost of a “minimum diet,” multiplied by three to account for other expenses and adjusted by family size. The measure from 1960 focuses on food. It also does not account for the vast increase in working women. The poverty measure also fails to take into account the rise in medical costs or the taxes on the poor.

On the other hand, many government programs to help the poor did not exist in 1960. Examples are food stamps and low-income housing. The government needs a new poverty measure that measures income available to families for meeting basic needs. The standard should include income after taxes, work-related expenses such as child care and commuting cost, and non-related expenses, such as health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses. A current poverty measure should cover basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. Poverty guidelines also should include food stamps, school lunches and public housing.

Although black Americans now can vote, there remains a significant gap between whites and blacks in income, housing, opportunities, education and health care. Poverty rates for blacks are two to three times higher than for whites. Blacks have higher morbidity and mortality rates. In addition, the separation of black and white residential areas has changed little since the 1960s.

A new poverty measure would change the designation of poor. Fewer people who receive welfare or other government benefits would be included as poor, more working people and those in two-parent families would be classified as poor, along with people who have no health insurance. With a current definition of poor and how poverty is changing, a new measure of poverty would provide a more informed understanding of the causes and solutions regarding poverty.

Another significant challenge for the 21st century is improving the U.S. census. Social changes are reducing the effectiveness of the census. It affects the distribution of federal funds in many programs and provides information used by community and nonprofit organizations, educators and academic researchers. In the past, the Census Bureau’s main methodology was going household to household to count people. The method is costly and misses groups of homeless and recent immigrants. Cooperation with the census has declined.

To produce more accurate and less costly census data, the academy report recommends using statistical sampling and estimation strategies to supplement the traditional census head count. These recommendations would be more accurate and less costly than following up the mail questionnaires by trying to track down people who don’t respond and visiting missed households again.

Using statistical estimation techniques presents an opportunity for making changes within the Census Bureau. Many expensive practices could be eliminated, such as trying to track down individuals one at a time who don’t respond to a mail questionnaire. Another recommendation to the Census Bureau is to use large, monthly surveys and average the results through the years. The academy also recommended using records such as Social Security and vital-statistics (federal, state and local) to supplement and update census information.

An important recommendation from the academy group is that the U.S. should focus on families and children. Strong families are the key determinant in the health and wellness of children and in the transmission of values from generation to generation.

• Next week’s article will continue to discuss challenges in the 21st century.

 Judy Caprez is professor emeritus at Fort Hays State University.