We Must Build—Not Undermine—Strong Foundations for Children
By Olivia Golden and Matthew Melmed
Delaware mom Kaylah Dessausure is a young, single parent. As she raises her toddler son, she has to make personal economic calculations every day that directly affect his healthy development. How can she hold her job as a clerk at a convenience store and still have the time and resources to give her little boy the emotional security that is so critical? How can she keep both of them healthy, housed, and fed on a shoestring budget? The questions Kaylah has to answer are faced by millions of parents nationwide.
Kaylah is fortunate on many fronts. She has found her son a spot in a program offering high-quality care while she works, partially supported through the Child Care and Development Block Grant. She benefits from Delaware’s expansion of its Medicaid eligibility, which provides health insurance for both herself and her son. Yet hard-working parents like Kaylah may soon find their everyday existence getting even tougher if Congress succeeds in passing the massive bill that will cut taxes for wealthy people and corporations, raise taxes for people of modest means, and result in significant reductions in programs that support low-income families.
At just the moment when Congressional and Administration actions are jeopardizing health, nutrition, and other core supports for low-income families like Kaylah’s, a new series of reports draws on decades of research into child development to demonstrate the central role these policies play in laying the foundation for infants’ and toddlers’ lifelong success. The series, Building Strong Foundations: Advancing Comprehensive Policies for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and ZERO TO THREE, distills the extensive research base to identify 13 policy components required to support young children and their families on a path to healthy development. Such public policies can address the comprehensive and interrelated needs of infants, toddlers, and families, ensuring access to mental and physical health care services; healthy food to eat; stable housing; good jobs with adequate benefits; and quality early care and learning programs.
All of these policies are at risk in today’s federal budget environment. In 2017, proposals by Congressional leadership and the Administration have threatened all four core areas of policy support identified in the Building Strong Foundations series: health; family economic stability; strong parents; and high-quality early care and education opportunities. For instance, Congress has engaged in continued efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and dramatically restructure Medicaid, and has not made progress toward reauthorizing the bipartisan Children’s Health Insurance Program. Now, Congress is poised to pass a package of massive tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit wealthy individuals and corporations while increasing taxes for hard-working families. Congressional leaders are already proposing to fund these tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy by slashing budgets for public programs—such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and TANF—that help millions of children and their parents like Kaylah make ends meet. National-level threats then have a cascading effect, potentially forcing states to cut education and early childhood programs should federal reductions leave holes in state budgets. This means that low-income families are doubly harmed: they miss out on the tax cuts—and may even see a tax increase—and then lose access to the programs they depend on to make ends meet.
For families with infants and toddlers, these policy decisions can have serious consequences during a formative period of their children’s lives. Babies’ earliest experiences shape their development, creating the foundation on which all future learning unfolds. Healthy development in the early years requires stability, particularly through positive, supportive relationships with trusted adults. The new reports from ZERO TO THREE and CLASP draw on extensive research demonstrating that a baby’s future depends on her family’s economic stability and her parents’ wellbeing, as well as her own access to basic necessities. Consistent access to safe housing, nutritious food, adequate clothing and diapers, and medical care also provide young children with a sense of security, helping them to learn and grow.
The reality for many young children and their parents is quite different. Despite high rates of parental employment—90% of children under age 3 have an employed parent—financial insecurity is still quite typical among families with infants and toddlers. About 20 percent of children younger than 3 live in poor families, and 41 percent live in low-income families. As a group, families with infants and toddlers have lower household incomes than those whose children are over five years old. This financial instability echoes throughout their lives, making them vulnerable to material hardship which threatens healthy development.
As a result, young children in these families already face steep odds. Those odds will become sharply worse if Congress destabilizes core programs families need. A growing body of research shows that the very programs at risk in today’s congressional debates—public programs like SNAP, which helps families put food on the table, and the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, which supplement parents’ paychecks—have lifelong effects on children’s success.
We cannot allow policymakers to undermine our interests by passing legislation that harms low-income infants, toddlers, and families. With Congress on the brink of passing a tax bill that would dramatically shift national priorities for decades, it’s imperative that we place families front and center as the basic units for a strong economy, now and in the future. If policymakers, leaders, and advocates are serious about improving the prospects for hard-working families, they will support and advance core policies that will give all young children the best start in life.
Olivia Golden is the Executive Director of CLASP, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and Matthew Melmed is the Executive Director of ZERO TO THREE.