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Indicators that Predict a Child's Life Outcomes

Using Census data, researchers at Next Generation mapped key indicators that significantly affect a child’s life trajectory within ZIP codes in California.[1] These indicators include poverty (child poverty and total poverty rates), educational attainment (rate of 4-year degree holders and those without a high school diploma), health (low birth-weight and asthma hospitalizations), and family structure (rate of single mother households). These indicators are included for nearly every ZIP code in California for which data was available.[2]

The Indicators:

  • Poverty is a powerful predictor of a child’s life outcomes. Specifically, child poverty is a strong indicator of adult poverty, especially among children born into poverty or those who experience prolonged poverty in the early years. Recent data confirms that childhood poverty has not only been growing in the past decades, it has also become more concentrated.
  • The level of educational attainment is an important indicator of a child’s chances in life:  Higher parental educational attainment is associated with better academic readiness and achievement for the child. Children of well-educated parents also have more resources to better support their early childhood development, which sets them up for later life success.
  • Because health is inextricably linked to quality of life, poor health can have a lasting impact on a child’s future. Two key health indicators we include in this category are the percentage of low birth-weight babies and the average number of emergency room visits for asthma-related complications. Low birth-weight babies are at a greater risk for many early health complications and chronic health conditions, and complications associated with low birth-weight have been shown to negatively affect a child’s academic achievement later on in life. Similarly, asthma, a leading chronic illness among children and cited as the primary reason for school absenteeism, can disrupt a child’s schooling and impede his or her ability to succeed in school.
  • Finally, family structure has a substantial bearing on a child’s future. Trends point to the rise of single-parent households, especially single-mothers. Due to limited resources, children from single-parent households tend to fare worse than children from two-parent households. These children are significantly more likely to experience poverty and family instability, factors that have been known to affect a child’s cognitive development and thus threaten the lifelong learning that can move children out of poverty.

Implicit in the organization of these indicators is the assumption that communities are integrated environments in which a child’s future is linked directly to the opportunities – or limitations – that exist for the adults that surround them. Similar in focus of the “Two Generations” approach to child and family poverty, our purpose for building this map is to open up the conversation in California to a sampling of major indicators of child’s environment which are outside of their control, but critical to their overall well-being.


[1] All data for these visualizations is derived from California Department of Public Health (Low Birth Weight), the California Office of Statewide Planning and Development (Asthma Hospitalizations), and the 2011 American Community Survey, 5-year Estimates, tables S1701 (Poverty Status), DP02 (Single Family Households), and S1501 (Educational Attainment for populations 25 years or older). The American Community Survey’s 5-year estimates are based on Zip Code Tabulation Areas (ZCTAs) which, while approximate to postal delivery ZIP codes, do not reflect them precise mail delivery ZIP codes.

[2] The American Community Survey produces estimates for several geographies, but if the sample population is too small to produce a reliable estimate, the data is not included. Of the 1,769 Zip Code Tabulation Areas (ZCTAs) in California, 1,621 provided estimates for each indicator we explore. For more information on the methodology used to produce the American Community Survey, see  

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