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Home Visiting: Setting Our Children Up for Lifelong Success

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Nearly half of young children in our country live in low-income families, and a startling 25 percent live in what's classified as "deep poverty." These numbers alone are disturbing enough; yet even more troubling is the lasting impact poverty has on young children. Research shows that living in poverty can chip away at a child's foundation for success by profoundly impacting brain development and critical cognitive and social-emotional skills.

There is a solution. Early intervention -- beginning before a child is even born -- can help to remediate the vicious impact of poverty and help children reach their full potential in school and in life. Numerous studies reinforce this, showing significant financial returns on investments in early childhood education, as much as $17 for every dollar invested due to reduced health care costs, reduced need for remedial education and increased family self-sufficiency.

The impact of these programs is clear. There is a groundswell of support from Americans for early education, and politicians from both parties at the local, state and federal levels have expressed their support. Yet the future of children, and our country, is still on shaky ground.

Congress recently extended funding for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program, which was due to expire in Sept. 2014. This little known, yet high-impact program provides critical funding for voluntary early childhood services for children and families who need them most. While MIECHV alone probably will not fully chip away at the devastating poverty figures cited above, in tandem with other early childhood education opportunities it very well could.

At issue, however, is the fact that Congress has only ensured that programs using these funds can remain operational through March 2015 -- now less than 12 months away. The time has come for Congress to give these programs long-term stability, enabling them to best serve the children and families in their communities, without the constant fear of funding expiring.

High-quality, voluntary home visiting programs effectively address many of the social, health and educational disparities found in young children living in poverty. The funds from MIECHV enable community-based home visitors to provide child-development and parenting information to help parents create safe, stimulating home environments; model positive and language-rich relationships; and ensure that families are better connected to coordinated medical, dental, mental-health and other supports.

Research clearly shows that high-quality home visiting programs improve maternal and newborn health outcomes, boost school readiness and academic achievement, and help families become economically self-sufficient. This is why voluntary home visiting has long-standing support from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and in states. President George W. Bush and former Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) were early and strong champions for the program through MIECHV.

Research also shows that supporting parents during pregnancy is a highly effective means to child development. Pregnant teens with home visiting support are less likely to have subsequent births within two years and are more likely to quickly return to school than teen mothers who do not receive support. And, young fathers who receive high-quality home visiting are more likely to be involved in their child's life on an ongoing basis.

For the last three decades, the Ounce of Prevention Fund has persistently pursued a single goal: that all American children -- particularly those born into poverty -- have quality early childhood experiences in the crucial first five years of life. With our community-based partners, the Ounce offers voluntary home visiting services to nearly 1,700 families throughout Illinois, including the children served by home visitors utilizing the Parents as Teachers model.

Nearly 2,000 local Parents as Teachers programs in all 50 states and Canada serve approximately 250,000 children each year. Parents as Teachers is an evidence-based, federally recognized, voluntary home visiting model that works with parents of children ages birth through five years to improve parenting practices and parent knowledge of child development, provide early detection of developmental delays and health issues, prevent child abuse and neglect, and increase children's school readiness.

Congress did their part to ensure home visiting programs wouldn't shutter their doors in September. Now they must ensure these programs stick around for the long haul.

We urge the federal government to support high-quality early childhood education to help level the playing field and mitigate the negative impact poverty can have on a child's life. The millions of infants and toddlers living in poverty represent our nation's future workforce and, in turn, our future economic vitality. Act swiftly to reauthorize MIECHV funding for the long-term to set our children up for lifelong success. Our country's future prosperity depends on it.

Co-authored by Scott Hippert, president and chief executive officer of Parents as Teachers.

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