We began publication of the Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County in 2006 to inspire action by encouraging data-driven decisions, illuminating the challenges and opportunities facing our community, and shaping a community-wide conversation about the importance of giving every child a fair start in life.

We are encouraged by the progress that has been made in the ensuing seven years. Early childhood development is now at the top of our civic agenda, but proposed cuts to programs benefiting children (Pre-K, for instance) remind us that there is much more to do. We want the Data Book to arm parents, caregivers, educators, community leaders, elected officials, and others with the facts that can strengthen their programs and advocacy efforts.

The facts about early childhood and brain development are well-established, and new research findings have only deepened our understanding of the importance of investing in children early. No investment that we make as a community has a greater return than preparing young children to learn and thrive, because when we enrich children’s lives, we enrich the future of the community itself.

All of us at The Urban Child Institute are dedicated to communicating this message. Our recent efforts include our “Baby Small” television and radio campaign about the crucial brain development that takes place before a child is three years old. In addition, building on the collaboration with the Neighborhood Christian Center that produced our “Touch, Talk, Read, Play” program, we have developed a curriculum that is being used by the Congregational Health Network.

The work that we do at The Urban Child Institute is based on the information in this Data Book, which remains the most definitive source of local data about the forces, trends, and factors affecting children. The 2013 Data Book once again underscores the dichotomy that exists in our community. The contrast between urban and suburban children remains profound, but we are making progress in several key areas:

  • The infant mortality rate has declined by about 25 percent in two years.
  • The infant mortality rate for African-Americans decreased by almost 30 percent in two years.
  • The birth rate for teenagers has declined by 26 percent since 2008.
  • The percentage of mothers receiving no prenatal care is now at a record low of 5.6 percent.
  • Breastfeeding has reached a record high, with the greatest increases taking place with African-American mothers (48 percent increase since 2004).

These positive trends should fortify and galvanize our work on behalf of our youngest residents. We continue to face serious hurdles because of the high rate of family poverty that creates risks for childhood well-being and optimal brain development:

  • 32 percent of Memphis families with children live in poverty, compared to 7 percent in suburban Shelby County.
  • 60.4 percent of Memphis children live in families headed by a single parent.
  • Median income for Shelby County families without children is $14,000 more than that of families with children, and in Memphis the difference is $18,000.
  • 39 percent of Memphis children live in poverty and more than half of Shelby County children face economic hardships.

Demographics are not destiny. Although too many of our children face adversities that threaten their success in life, many children thrive despite these barriers. Research shows that effective parenting can be a protective buffer against the effects of poverty and other risks, and a positive home environment is the foundation for healthy brain development and long-term positive outcomes.

This year’s Data Book continues our tradition of spotlighting exemplary programs that set the standard in their service to children. Featured in this year’s Data Book is Memphis Child Advocacy Center, which has been on the front lines combating child sexual abuse for 20 years. Through prevention, education, and community collaboration, The Child Advocacy Center promotes healing and seeks justice for victims of sexual abuse and severe physical abuse.

As a community, we have no greater moral imperative than to protect children and to give each one a fair start in life. There is no magical answer. Rather, there is only the magic of a community united by its commitment to providing positive developmental experiences for young children by supporting parents, quality child care, and early education. The 2013 Data Book: the State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County is our contribution to the pursuit of those goals.