Dear Fellow Citizens,
Are you aware that issues related to child well-being have never taken center stage in any presidential administration? The platitudes of our past presidents have emphasized the importance of protecting our children. However, meaningful change has yet to be enacted at the necessary level. This is astonishing given both the immediate and long-term impacts that prioritizing child well-being could have on protecting the lives of our nation’s youth. This ultimately will allow for our young people to grow into thriving adults who can actively contribute to our nation’s progress. Political ideologies aside, we urge you to undertake the fight to provide all children with the chance to reach their maximum potential by encouraging your Congressional representatives to support the following initiatives:
1. Expand Medicaid and access to quality preventative care for low-income families. The current administration has proposed extensive changes to our healthcare system. These changes would have far-reaching implications for the prevention of child maltreatment. If the current Medicaid expansion were repealed, systems that support our nation’s most vulnerable families would suffer.
Importantly, the Medicaid expansion currently provides increased coverage to low-income adults, many of whom are working parents. Coverage includes behavioral and substance use services. Such services are essential, as many parents who have maltreated their children report higher levels of mental and physical health problems than the general population. Parenting can be stressful, and this stress is compounded for families living in poverty. Increased parental stress has been found to strongly contribute to higher rates of harsh parenting, abuse, and neglect. There is a simple solution: Reduce the likelihood of child maltreatment by providing the treatment needed for non-elderly, low-income adults and parents. Allow our most vulnerable families to keep their benefits provided under the Medicaid expansion.
Further, access to high quality early home visiting services during pregnancy or at birth, particularly for those living in poverty, has been shown to benefit families and children directly while reducing costs to society. According to a report by Mathematica Policy Research, home visitation program participation promotes positive short- and long-term outcomes related to maternal and child health, maltreatment rates, parenting practices, and school readiness. The effects of this type of program can reverberate for decades, as studies also show reductions in juvenile delinquency and improvements in family economic self-sufficiency. These are exactly the types of programs we as a nation should be investing in to protect our children. At present, less than 6% of low-income new parents have access to this level of support. When making decisions about where to invest our healthcare dollars in ways that maximize our return on investment, we urge you to listen to the evidence: Investing in prevention is key.
2. Expand access to high quality child care options. In the United States, over 60% of children under the age of five are placed in child care. Research demonstrates that high quality child care can promote positive cognitive, social-emotional, and behavioral development and protect against risks that compromise development. It is therefore essential that we make it easier for families to find, access, and utilize quality child care services.
In reality, low-income children are less likely to be placed in formal child care arrangements. When they are, the quality of care is often substandard, thereby placing children at additional risk. If there is such a great need for quality, affordable child care, why is there no national policy? In 1971, Congress passed a bill to create a universal, federally funded child care system, but this bill never received presidential support. Most recently, President Obama took action to make child care and early education a national priority through initiatives such as universal preschool, tax cuts for families paying for child care, and expanding access to quality child care for working families. These were critical first steps, but much more needs to be done.
Again, our programs and policies fail to reflect our research findings and current economic climate. According to a 2015 report by the Council of Economic Advisers, investments in high quality early education generate economic returns of over $8 for every $1 spent. However, existing funding levels fail to cover all of the families that are in need of child care support. Only 14% of eligible children receive child care subsidies, Early Head Start programs serve less than 4% of eligible children, and the Child Care and Development Block Grant provides assistance to only 10% of eligible children. We can do better. We must urge Congress to make early education a priority. It is essential that the national budget prioritize our nation’s child care needs.
3. Invest in learning how to best prevent child maltreatment and enhance child well-being. It is clear that substantial gaps exist between research and policy in how to most effectively prevent child maltreatment and allow our children to reach their full potential. Research provides a strong foundation of evidence with which policymakers can shape governmental priorities. The current funding and capacity for research is woefully inadequate, particularly in regard to identifying ways to best support parents in the challenges of raising children, and to improve basic services that every child needs to be successful.
In order to effectively bridge the gap between research and policy in this area, we ask you to help prioritize partnerships for developing research and data analysis strategies. Although some research is being conducted for the promotion of child well-being, there is a critical need to examine how to prevent child maltreatment and further help our children thrive. At a federal level, there exists great opportunity to provide funding for, and directly collaborate with, researchers with the expertise to address these gaps and create a better future for all of our children.
Fellow citizens, we urge you to encourage Congress to make protecting our country’s children a priority. Invest in our children by improving prevention and intervention efforts to support vulnerable families. Ask Congress to support programs and efforts that will reduce barriers to care and that will prevent children from being exposed to maltreatment. Advocate for the continuation and expansion of funding for Medicaid. Help to promote the development of and funding for evidence-based parenting education and home visiting programs. Push for investments in universal high quality child care. If we do not make these investments now, our children and our society will continue to suffer. The cost of prevention is nothing compared to the worth of our children’s lives.
Young scholars who know the research and are eager to use it to provide a more informed and effective set of policy decisions
The authors are doctoral students from across the country who have received Doris Duke Dissertation Fellowships for the Promotion of Child Well-Being. The opinions expressed are the authors’ personal opinions and do not reflect those of any organization or the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.