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To support early childhood development, invest in housing

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A growing body of research is demonstrating what we already intuitively know: that our children will have a much brighter future if they begin the journey of life in a decent, affordable home. Investments to improve housing quality and affordability for families with children can help set the stage for success later in life. Alternatively, failure to make these investments can result in lasting damage.

Two of the most hazardous features of poor quality housing are lead-based paint and mold.

{mosads}Early childhood exposure to lead-based paint can inflict damage on the brain, kidneys, and nervous system, while impairing cognitive and emotional development. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that “[e]ven low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”  Since these effects cannot be corrected, they have a lifetime impact. 

Similarly, exposure to household mold – often the result of moisture problems stemming from water leaks – has been linked to childhood asthma. Asthma in children is a major cause of emergency room visits, hospitalizations and missed school days.

Not surprisingly, children in lower-income families are exposed to these dangerous toxins at much greater rates than those from higher-income families.

In addition to housing quality, the stability and affordability of housing is also critical to early childhood development. Today, nine million children in communities across the country live in “severely cost-burdened” households that pay in excess of 50 percent of their income just on rent and utilities. For these families, frequent moves from home to home are the norm. Many are just one missed rent payment away from eviction.

The instability caused by high housing-cost burdens can negatively affect the trajectory of a young child’s life.

Families who devote so much of their income to rent often cannot afford other essentials like nutritious food and medicine that can impact child health and development. According to Children’s HealthWatch, young children who had moved two or more times over a 12-month period were more likely to be “food insecure,” in fair or poor health, at risk for developmental delays, and seriously underweight.

Compared to those living in more stable homes, children who experience residential instability underperform academically, develop weaker vocabulary skills, and engage in more problem behaviors. As they grow older, these children have higher high school dropout rates and achieve less economic success.

The good news is that federal rental assistance programs are a stabilizing force for millions of low-income families. Research shows positive impacts on health, nutrition, academic achievement, and future economic attainment for the children living in these subsidized households. The problem:  As a result of limited funds, only one in four low-income households eligible for federal rental assistance actually receives this help.

As Dr. Megan Sandel of Boston University explains: “Housing can act like a vaccine” for children, providing multiple long-term benefits and producing a high rate of return in the form of stronger health and educational outcomes. In her view, the debate is no longer whether housing matters for children but how much it matters. 

Today, I am pleased to join with Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tenn.), and other members of the Congressional Baby Caucus at a public forum that aims to shine a spotlight on this critical linkage between housing and early childhood development. 

With federal housing assistance programs under the budget knife, policymakers must understand that an investment in housing is nothing less than a down payment on our children’s futures.

Ali Solis is CEO and President of Make Room, Inc. Make Room advocates for struggling renters and elevates rental housing on the agendas of our nation’s leaders.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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