Science tells us that our experiences as infants and toddlers greatly affect the quality of the structures in the brain. Up through age three, our minds grow more rapidly than at any other time, developing 700 new learning pathways each second. These neural connections serve as a springboard for success throughout life. The stronger and more plentiful they are, the better able we are to acquire skills, work with others and persist in the face of challenges.
Beginning at conception and through this "once in a lifetime" developmental period, our parents' actions (or inaction), and the environment they provide, shape the brain's fundamental capacity: our potential. The effects of early advantages—and disadvantages—accumulate quickly. How parents interact with their babies and use language in the home can contribute to disparities in children's attention and vocabulary skills that are detectable within the first year of life. By age three, children raised in a more diverse and rich language environment may know twice as many words as their less advantaged peers. A child's health at birth, which is influenced significantly by the mother's prenatal care and habits, can leave a lasting impact, too. Low birth-weight babies, for instance, are more likely to have poorer health later in life, difficulties in school and lower earnings as adults.
State and local chambers are responding to this substantial and growing body of evidence by backing policies and investments that help parents—especially those with fewer resources and certain risk factors—better understand and promote their baby's optimal development. Business leaders embrace this work because healthy families are integral to thriving communities and because it is sound fiscal policy.
Prompted by the research and the active support from businesses, states are developing programs to provide parents with the knowledge and tools to foster their newborn's mental and physical wellbeing. "We have made young children and their families a priority because it's the only way to ensure that we get the citizens and employees we need at the other end of the talent pipeline," says Varsovia Fernandez, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a member of Pennsylvania's governor-appointed Early Learning Investment Commission.
Advocacy for a voluntary, research-based, parent-coaching program called home visiting is one way Fernandez and like-minded chamber leaders have translated their goals for workforce development and quality of life in their communities into their public policy agendas. Lori Vetters, regional commercial executive at HSBC Bank USA and a member of the Greater Houston Partnership, says her colleagues "understand that investing in our young children now will yield the highest returns to society."
Voluntary home visiting programs pair expectant and new parents with a trained professional such as a nurse or social worker. Through regular meetings in the family's home, moms and dads get answers to the many questions that arrive with a baby, hands-on instruction in ways to support their child's cognitive, social and physical growth, and strategies for managing the stress of parenting. In many cases, home visitors work to ensure that mothers also receive proper prenatal care, and that families are connected with other programs, including mental health services, substance abuse counseling and GED or college courses when needed.
Rigorous research on home visiting has shown important gains in school achievement and large decreases in rates of low birth-weight births, child abuse and neglect, and involvement with the criminal justice system. A study examining a home visiting program showed it improved pediatric health and reduced child abuse and neglect. These programs return nearly $6 per taxpayer dollar invested by reducing the need for other costly social programs.
These remarkable results reflect the powerful relationship established between families and home visitors, which helps parents obtain not just information but the motivation and support to change their behavior.
Grand Rapids Chamber Promotes Early Childhood Investment
The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce has long been a leader in making the case for investments in early childhood as an important economic strategy. Vice President Andy Johnston says, "We became excited about early childhood because it is consistent with our philosophy of systems thinking.
A state's early childhood system affects everything—property values, workforce, education—and home visiting is an essential component, one that dramatically strengthens families and communities." Johnston works with the First Steps Commission, a public-private partnership to help the county's children, and CEO Rick Baker signed on as supporter of the Children's Leadership Council of Michigan.
The Chamber's 2011-2012 legislative policy agenda stated members' intention to "advocate for legislation and initiatives that promote early childhood and youth development," and they followed through on that commitment during the debate on the legislation requiring the state to invest its home visiting funds in models proven to deliver results for children and families. Chamber staff testified before the legislature and talked to more than 20 legislators to help win passage of the law.
A 2010 inventory of state home visiting programs, assembled by the Pew Home Visiting Campaign, made clear that governors and legislatures have work to do to make the most of this proven strategy. Expanding access to these kinds of programs would yield greater returns, but states can improve outcomes with no additional funding by ensuring that existing funds are being spent on programs with the best evidence of success. While 46 states invested in home visiting programs in 2010, they frequently provided funding with few, if any, requirements that the dollars support home visiting models backed by solid evidence, nor did they adequately monitor program outcomes.
Iowa, Maryland and Michigan passed legislation this year to fix these shortcomings and ensure accountability to taxpayers. With bipartisan support, each enacted a law that directs its home visiting dollars toward models shown to produce child and family outcomes important to the state. And all three states complemented their data-driven investment policies with stronger systems to track program performance, affording policy makers vital data to refine their home visiting goals and funding in the future.
The Iowa Association of Business & Industry and Iowa Chamber of Commerce Executives endorsed the legislation taken up by lawmakers in Des Moines. Robin Anderson, president and CEO of the Mason City (Iowa) Chamber and the chair of the chamber executives group, says, "The evidence that home visiting works is what compels us to invest in this strategy, but the state's responsibility doesn't stop there. We've got to regularly and consistently measure how every program, even those with the best track record, is helping children and families."
Michigan's bill drew business community praise and support, too, and two leading voices were Rick Baker, CEO of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, and Steward Sandstrom, then-CEO of the Kalamazoo Chamber, and now CEO of the Springfield, Illinois Chamber. (See sidebar at left.)
These reforms create a strong foundation upon which states can grow their investments as fiscal conditions improve. To maximize home visiting's societal benefits and financial return, states will have to serve more families. Pew's 2010 analysis found that no state had sufficient funding and infrastructure to reach all of its highest-risk families. The full potential of these programs is yet to be tapped, giving policy makers the opportunity to support broader gains in child and family wellbeing and to reap more savings for taxpayers by reducing poor birth outcomes and child maltreatment on an even larger scale.
Chambers' knowledge of their communities and states, their passion for improving economic vitality and their policy and political savvy make them ideal partners for policy change initiatives. They can help promote pragmatic, cost-effective proposals and call attention to the hard data behind proven programs. Perhaps most importantly, they can make the case for reforms by clearly linking strong families and effective parenting to children's healthy brain development and improved academic achievement and, in turn, to the 21st-century labor force that is essential for a robust economy. As Bill Thornton, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Chamber, says, "Proven early childhood programs like home visiting deliver well-prepared minds to our schools and eventually into the workforce, driving economic growth and prosperity."
Libby Doggett is the director of the Pew Home Visiting Campaign, a project of the Pew Center on the States. For more information about the campaign, visit www.pewstates.org/homevisiting. Pew's partner in engaging business leaders as champions for young children is ReadyNation, a project of America's Promise Alliance. More information on the business case for early childhood investments can be found at www.ReadyNation.org. Chamber staff who would like to become involved can email ReadyNation.
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