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Dashboard to present overview of community’s health, well-being

Friday, March 5, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The City of Austin and Travis County have unveiled a statistics-based tool that they hope will help to better focus their social service efforts. Specifically, according to the 2010 version of the new Community Dashboard, it will offer interested parties “an overview of the social health and well-being of Austin and Travis County.” Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt said she expects that it will provide the area with a measuring stick that is both “demonstrated (and) long-term.”


“This dashboard will knit together both our combined resources as well as our combined talents,” said Eckhardt. “So (that) activist A can be morally outraged on thing one and activist B can be morally outraged on thing two and recognize through this dashboard how thing one and thing two are interrelated.”


“That is exceedingly important as we see our dollars diminish,” she added. Eckhardt was speaking at a press conference called to announce the project’s unveiling on Thursday.


In her remarks, Council Member Laura Morrison was also enthusiastic about the Dashboard. “The dashboard indicators are going to guide our work (at) the CAN organization for 2010 and beyond….I hope that the public will really take an opportunity to take a look at (the report) because it gives a great picture of where we are and where we want to go.” Morrison serves on the Community Action Network (CAN) board of directors and Eckhardt is the Chair-Elect of the group.


CAN will produce the dashboard annually. According to the report, CAN “enhance(s) awareness of community issues and support(s) collaboration to maximize our community’s resources and the impact of our efforts to help individuals and families.” It has 17 partners, including the Austin Chamber of Commerce, Capital Metro, Capital Area Workforce Solutions, and the University of Texas at Austin. The organization says that its work on the Community Dashboard began in 2009.


The dashboard is centered on a series of 16 indicators that cover a wide range of social issues. These include the percentage of Austin Independent School District (AISD) students who graduate from high school in four years, the percentage of Travis County households that use 30 percent or more of their household income to pay for housing, the number of Travis County residents who are under the age of 65 and have no health insurance, and a demographic look at the arrest figures for Travis County.  


For this year, at least, the picture it paints is not exactly rosy. Eckhardt told In Fact Daily that this was the general idea. “That’s the point of the dashboard, to look for places where we need to improve,” she said.


In the 2010 edition of the Community Dashboard, trouble areas included:


§       The four-year AISD graduation rate. This steadily declined from 2005-2008, dropping the district to a low for the region of 74 percent in 2008.


§       The fact that 37 percent of Travis County residents were “cost-burdened” by the amount of money they had to pay for their housing. That figure was higher than both the national and Texas averages—and the number for Austin itself was even higher. According to the report, “this indicator helps to quantify the concept of affordable housing.” Here, it represents a sure sign of concern for advocates concerned with the cost of living in Austin.


§       Though at just under and just over 25 percent, respectively, Austin and Travis County fared worse than the national average when it comes to the medically uninsured, each municipality outranked Texas as a whole. According to the dashboard, “the U.S. Census Bureau reports that Texas has the highest percentage of people who are uninsured in the nation.”


§       The report also offered the succinct conclusion that “arrests (in Travis County) are not proportionate for all races.” Though African-Americans make up only eight percent of the population of the County, that group accounted for 23 percent of the region’s arrests. Whites, who, in 2008, collectively accounted for 52 percent of the population, made up 44 percent of the county’s arrests. The report is frank in the conclusion that it draws from these figures: “This data raises certain questions about what causes certain populations to enter our criminal justice population with greater frequency.”


In better news, Austin and Travis County performed comparatively well in the arenas of unemployment and obesity rate.


Eckhardt says that she anticipates wide returns from the community dashboard. “Through (this) process, I see the three biggest dividends at this point, although I’m certain there will be many others that redound to us, (as) our ability to hold ourselves accountable, our ability to identify what’s working and what’s not working, and our ability–and this is key, I think–to identify strategies over in issue one that could be migrated over to issue two,” she said.


“I think that this is going to be a very, very powerful tool for us going forward.”

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