For more than 10 years, our national trade association, the United Way of America, has been measuring social, economic, and environmental health issues at the national and state level to produce its annual State of Caring Index and, in essence, creating a quality-of-life barometer. It incorporates 36 indicators including financial security, health, education, safety, charitable giving, volunteerism, civic engagement, and the environment.

The index found that despite recovery changes in the economy since 2000, the following changes are undermining recent economic gains: marked increases in rental housing that can't be met by minimum-wage earners, decreases in median income and unemployment by middle-income earners, and rising health care coverage. For many single-parent households, these increases pose a triple threat to youth.

According to the index, there have been many positive gains such as increased home ownership, improved test scores, and increased resources for schools. Theft and violence rates also have positively improved, providing communities with a greater sense of security. And in the areas of charity, volunteerism, and civic engagement, increases have been seen in donations supporting the nonprofit sector.

Since the United Way is uniquely positioned to bring together business, government, and non-profits to foster social wellbeing, the index findings can foster data-informed discussion among community leaders in the coming year. Many local United Ways, just like the Heart of Illinois United Way, have begun implementing their own indices specific for their community. In 2005, Bradley University's Center for Business and Economic Research will be working with us and the Community Foundation to produce a local community assessment. The center will review data for a six-county region (Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Putnam, Stark, and Marshall) to evaluate trends and derive conclusions based on demographic overviews of the community including race, age, sex, and family social status; education performance in grades K-12; crime statistics, in particular juvenile crime; health data collected on deaths related to preventable diseases; economic data relating to occupation, self-employment, income, and poverty rates; and housing trends relating to affordable rentals.

Whether it's at the national, state, or local level, evaluating research based on quality-of-life factors is a valuable tool to help focus on what really matters-community impact. The United Way of America's State of Caring Index is just the first step in raising awareness about where communities can apply their resources to achieve measurable and lasting results. IBI