Part IV: Economic Security and Family Supports are Critical to Early Childhood Development

When do children begin to learn? Believe it or not, school readiness begins in the womb. Research show the first few years of life, including the prenatal months, are the most important for healthy brain development. Unfortunately, too many kids aren’t getting the boost they need in the infant and toddler years.

Earlier this year, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading released a new report, “What Do Our Littlest Learners Need to Be School-Ready?” This report focuses on a few factors that have the greatest impact on school readiness: good health, positive early learning experiences, and strong families with economic stability. 

Economic security and family supports are critical to child development in the early years. This blog post is the final in a series of blogs highlighting the importance of investing early in our littlest learners and what our state can do to improve quality and access of programs for families who depend upon them.

School-readiness starts in the womb.

Prenatal care is vital for healthy babies and their mothers. Most births in Arkansas are covered by Medicaid, and many pregnant women qualify for care during their pregnancy and up to 60 days after the baby is born. Since Arkansas expanded coverage under the Affordable Care Act, women account for about 58 percent of enrollees in the state’s Medicaid expansion program. Extending coverage to more women can reduce premature births and improve prenatal care. Infants born early are at a greater risk for serious health problems. This is especially important, since 12.7 percent of babies in Arkansas are born pre-term.

Paid family leave gives families a chance to build strong bonds without financial hardships.

No parent should have to make a choice between needing to work and wanting to take good care of his or her children. Taking time away from work to care for a new baby improves a child’s emotional, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes. Research shows that when families have access to paid leave, they are more likely to take their infants to doctor’s appointments, their children get sick less and recover faster, and they are more likely to attempt breastfeeding for as long as they are able. Just a few extra weeks of paid leave is also connected to a significant reduction in infant deaths.

In the 2017 legislative session, the Arkansas legislature recognized this critical need by enacting a paid family leave program for state employees at a very low cost. However, there is currently no state-level paid leave for non-state employees in Arkansas. The next step is to expand this program to include all Arkansas workers, especially during their children’s most vulnerable years.

A state EITC would help move many infants and toddlers out of poverty.

A third of Arkansas’s youngest children live in families in poverty — well above the national average of 25 percent. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a federal program that helps low-income families keep more of what they earn. The EITC is widely regarded as the most powerful anti-poverty and pro-work policy tool ever implemented. Eligibility is based on several factors like income, age, marital status, and family size. Increases in the tax credits have been linked to improved infant and maternal health, better test scores for elementary and middle school students, a better chance of students attending college, and higher salaries decades down the road. A state EITC would be an important pro-child development policy that could help many families make a permanent move out of poverty.

Over half of states (26 plus the District of Columbia) have implemented a state EITC to supplement the federal credit, because they have seen its effectiveness in helping lift millions of families out of poverty. Arkansas is not one of those states, despite multiple proposals over the last several legislative sessions. However, a state EITC is gaining support among community leaders and lawmakers, which could result in a big boost to help families with young children in our state

Home visiting is a proven, cost-effective way to help families go from good to great.

Another vital support for families of infants and toddlers is home visiting, which reinforces good parenting habits and helps fill in the gaps as needed. Home visiting consists of voluntary, primarily home-based programs available to expectant mothers and families with young children. Home visits cover everything from maternal health to child development and school readiness. These services are particularly valuable to lower-income and rural families who often have limited access to health services and parenting resources. Evaluations of home visiting programs show: a decrease in the incidence of low birth weight babies by nearly half, which means healthier babies and lower health care costs for families and state and private insurers; a sharp decline (almost by half) of instances of child abuse and neglect; and a significant increase in readiness to read.

The Arkansas Home Visiting Network (or Stronger Families, Brighter Futures) is a collaboration of the various home visiting programs operating throughout the state. Coordination between the programs was supported in Act 528 of 2013, which prioritized state investment in home visiting programs in Arkansas and required at least 90 percent of state funding to be spent on evidence-based models. The Act mandates that home visiting programs track and measure outcomes such as improvements in maternal and infant health, family self-sufficiency, and school readiness. Outcomes must be measured for all state-funded programs.

Various partners, including Arkansas’s Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, provide services to at-risk mothers and infants through five evidence-based home visiting models:

  • Following Baby Back Home: Serves families of high-risk infants after discharge from the neonatal intensive care unit. The program currently serves 269 infants and toddlers in Arkansas.
  • Healthy Families America: Serves at-risk children from prenatal stage through age 3. As of 2015, there were 298 active families in Arkansas’s program.
  • Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY): Provides early literacy, language development, and school readiness support for parents of children ages 3 to 5. HIPPY serves approximately 5,300 children in Arkansas annually.
  • Nurse-Family Partnership: Serves low-income women who are at or below 28 weeks pregnant with their first child. The partnership currently serves 154 Arkansas families.
  • Parents as Teachers (PAT): Serves families with children from prenatal stage through age 5. It currently has the capacity to serve 864 families in Arkansas each year.

The Home Visiting Network also administers developmental screens for children they serve and is developing a partnership with DHS’s Division of Developmental Disabilities Services known as First Connections. See AACF and the Arkansas Campaign for Grade-Level Reading’s report, “Childhood Screenings: Improving Access to Early Identification, Referrals, and Linkages to Services,” for more information.

The state would be wise to expand home visiting programs to serve more infants and toddlers. The demand for these programs is great, yet very few families are being served.

Arkansas can better support families during their children’s earliest years.

Policymakers, educators, parents, and our communities must work together to create a comprehensive, long-term plan to move Arkansas from adequacy to excellence and poverty to prosperity. This will require us to do a better job of supporting new parents before their children are ever born and provide infants and toddlers a much stronger foundation for success in pre-K-12 and beyond. It will take all of us working together to make these priorities become a reality for our littlest learners.

To read AACF’s full report, “What Do Our Littlest Learners Need to Be School-Ready?”, visit https://www.aradvocates.org/publications/what-do-our-littlest-learners-need-to-be-school-ready

Read part I of this blog series here; part II here; and part III here.