Let’s help young parents find the support they need
I remember the day my son was born as the most exhilarating and yet frightening day of my life. It was exhilarating because his little fingers and toes were awesome. It was frightening because my wife and I had no idea how to keep him alive, let alone help him thrive, and we thought we were on our own to figure it out.
Millions of new parents feel the same and, in important ways, the recently approved American Rescue Plan Act and President Biden’s proposed American Families Plan are the cavalry coming to their collective rescue. They will provide sorely needed investments in infrastructure to support families with children aged birth to five — a welcome development in a country that lags behind almost every other developed nation in the amount of support we provide families with young children.
I hope the American Families Plan is passed and joins the American Rescue Plan Act in being fully implemented. Missing from these plans, though, is a means to ensure that all families will indeed take advantage of the resources that could help them. Without that assurance, the early childhood investments proposed by Biden would be like building hospitals without telling people where the entrance is or building schools without telling parents that their child is eligible to enroll.
Our nation’s youngest children are in trouble. Mortality rates in the U.S. among children from the time they are born to five years of age and their mothers are among the worst in the developed world. Parents’ stress and isolation lead to shockingly high rates of child maltreatment. Too many of our children come to kindergarten ill-prepared to learn. Even worse, shameful disparities are growing between white and Black families with young children.
Biden’s plans will provide the human infrastructure to improve the quality and availability of pre-kindergarten, preschool, health care and the child care workforce, and will bring tax savings to the subset of families that earn enough to pay taxes and are connected enough to know how to apply. A large scientific body of evidence suggests these expenditures can provide a strong return on investment if utilized by the population. Missing from the plan is a universal system of care that will ensure that all families will take advantage of the resources that will become available.
Already, not all families “take up” the kinds of available resources that could support them and their children. Public health insurance, Head Start and many social services are terribly under-enrolled. And access to quality programs is biased. All too often, wealthy white families quickly fill the slots for the best preschools in town, leaving others to settle for less-than-best options.
Why do funded programs not reach all eligible families? Reasons are many. Cultural norms tell parents they should know how to nurture their baby’s development and they should be “on their own” to raise their babies. Community services sometimes ignore family needs: public buses may not stop in housing projects; preschools may adopt calendars that don’t work for parents who have no back-up on days off; and application forms may be too complicated. We have seen too many times that families, particularly disenfranchised and disadvantaged families, are not well-connected enough to take advantage of “middle-class” systems such as tax credits, well-baby health care, and voluntary early child care and education programs. Even worse, some services actively discriminate. Cynics might conclude that some public leaders want to say the funds are authorized but secretly hope they are never spent.
To transform our population and its disparities, we must offer the health, educational and social services families need and ensure that every family will access the resources that they need. Full access will help parents feel less alone, less anxious and more efficacious in navigating the parenting journey. Without universal access, these resources will be gobbled up by the well-informed, well-connected and well-to-do.
We need a bottom-up universal system that helps every family with a young child navigate the top-down early childhood infrastructure that we build. Specifically, we need navigators who tell parents it is okay to seek help and where to find it.
The navigator would be like the pediatrician who guides a family toward tailored health services such as otolaryngology or neurosurgery, or the teacher who guides a family toward special education for a learning disability or an after-school tutoring program.
Such navigator services for early education, mental health and wellbeing have already been developed and tested. They incorporate home visiting for new parents, comprehensive electronic records and integrated data systems. They are the “glue” that could bind the array of otherwise-siloed services proposed by our president.
Scientific evidence shows that navigator programs for young parents can make parents feel less anxious and more confident, can connect families to needed community resources, and can lower emergency health care costs and child maltreatment rates. These programs are the foundation we need to support skyscraper plans to rescue our families.
Kenneth A. Dodge is the William McDougall professor of Public Policy at Duke University and the founder of a navigator program called Family Connects.
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