Op-ed: Children need an opportunity to grow

Nothing is more important to me than making sure all children become healthy, self-sufficient contributors to society.

As a Utahn, I want our kids to have an opportunity to grow up in stable, loving homes. As an entrepreneur, I want our young people to be able to take advantage of educational experiences and build the workforce of tomorrow. As a taxpayer, I want to make sure that my tax dollars — and yours — go toward solutions that work. Voluntary home visiting programs help achieve all three of those goals.

The federal Maternal, Infant, Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program funds services in Utah and around the country that pair nurses and other trained professionals with young, at-risk parents in an in-home mentoring relationship. These professionals help parents learn how to respond positively to the stress of parenting, understand the physical and emotional needs of their child, and make their homes safer for children. MIECHV focuses on programs that are supported by evidence, and it allows for flexibility that permits local authorities to choose the programs that work best in those communities.

Unfortunately, MIECHV is set to expire at the end of September. If Congress doesn’t reauthorize MIECHV, that inaction will cost our state and our nation dearly.

Home visiting programs provide support for children and parents from pregnancy through the first few years of life, a time of uniquely important brain development. More than one million new neural connections form in a child’s brain every second during the earliest years. The health habits of a mother during pregnancy and the actions of parents during early childhood can damage — or boost — mental traits such as confidence and self-control.

In addition, research highlighted in a recent report from Council for a Strong America shows that quality home-visiting programs can have a direct impact on the well-being and stability of households. One study showed that a program called the Nurse-Family Partnership cut child abuse and neglect in half. Another showed that the Every Child Succeeds program reduced infant mortality rates by 60 percent.

Just as important, the positive effects of home visiting can last long past early childhood. Home visiting programs help teach parents how to stimulate a child’s developing mind by reading to and speaking to the child. That stimulation positively impacts a child’s ability to learn, and research again underscores this point: A study of the Healthy Families America program found that 27 percent fewer children required special education in elementary school when compared to non-participating children.

Home visiting programs are also a “two-generation” solution: Parents and children alike benefit from involvement in voluntary home visiting. For example, a home visitor can coach parents on how to prioritize employment and educational goals as they simultaneously raise a child. This, too, gets results. Research on the Early Head Start program revealed that parent coaching boosted mothers’ average yearly earnings by $3,600.

Achieving a good return on investment is important, whether you’re investing in products and services or investing in human capital, and home visiting hits the mark again. An economic analysis of the Nurse-Family Partnership cited by the business-leader group ReadyNation found that the program achieved an average benefit (net savings minus costs) of $9,000 for every family served. Overall, for every dollar we spend on home visiting, we get up to $6 back.

We’re doing far more than just investing in a program — we’re investing in the future success of these young families.

These diverse benefits to children, parents, taxpayers, our economy, and our society will slip away if Congress lets the September 30 deadline come and go without reauthorizing MIECHV. Without this funding, more than 750 at-risk families in Utah will no longer have access to evidence-based home visiting programs that can affect the lives of parents and children in profoundly positive ways.

From any perspective, voluntary home-visiting programs are a smart investment — and an investment that we should make for the sake of our state and our nation.But time is running out.

We must urge policymakers in Washington to work together immediately, so that they can renew and expand MIECHV before the Sept. 30 deadline. MIECHV is a proven, bipartisan program with an evidence-based, local focus that will improve the lives of children and parents and help build a stronger workforce and economy.The clock is ticking. Congress must act at once to preserve this vital program. Without it, hundreds of at-risk families in Utah will suffer.

James Lee Sorenson is the founder of Sorenson Media, serves as its chairman, and is a member of the ReadyNation CEO Task Force on Early Childhood.

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