California Considers Home Visiting Expansion, Congress Should Too

By Shiva Sethi

Parenting isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for low-income families. The birth of a child is a special time, filled with optimism and excitement, but it is also a time of stressful decisions and financial vulnerability. Low-income families often have diverse needs during the early years of a child’s life when parents try to give their children the best possible start while also managing a host of new costs and pressures. Home visiting programs provide a holistic and personal way for federal and state policymakers to support these families during a challenging period.

Home visitors are trained professionals who help parents develop the skills they need to promote their children’s development and connect to community resources. Importantly, home visiting programs achieve a range of outcomes; they improve school readiness, better maternal and child health and reduce the likelihood of child abuse.

These outcomes are important because low-income children face disadvantages during a critical time in their brain development. Researchers have identified significant differences in vocabulary size, social skills, and emotional abilities between toddlers in low-income families and their peers from better-off families. Studies have shown that home visiting programs can counter these inequities while saving taxpayer money by reducing the costs of other public programs.

In his budget released last month, California Governor Brown proposed directing $27 million of the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars to a voluntary home visiting pilot program. This initiative will target pregnant women and first-time parents in CalWORKs – California’s TANF program. TANF serves very low-income parents, and home visiting is an important intervention at a crucial time. In addition to promoting child development and health, the home visitors in this program will link parents to job training which will help families become more economically secure. Home visiting’s two-generational approach addresses the interrelated wellbeing of parents and children, another reason it’s such a valuable policy tool for fighting inequity.

As California considers expanding its home visiting investments, Congressional leaders have stalled by allowing funding to expire for the national Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program. MIECHV served around 160,000 children in all 50 states in 2016. It’s been 128 days since the funding lapsed, leaving the future of home visiting uncertain.

State legislators in California and across the rest of the country should invest in home visiting—as well as child care assistance and other early education programs—that help get all children off to a strong start. Federal legislators should follow California’s lead, and they can begin by reauthorizing MIECHV.