What are the best ways for states to help young children?

The Prenatal-to-3 State Policy Roadmap has answers that were shared earlier this month at a virtual summit that drew “thousands of national and state leaders, scholars, and practitioners.” Videos of that event are posted here.

Released by Vanderbilt University’s Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center, the roadmap is an annual guide that draws on the science of child development. Specifically, the roadmap looks at:

• young children’s wellbeing

• proven, evidence-based policy strategies

• states’ implementation of 11 effective policy and strategy solutions, and

• how policy changes impact young children and their families, and how these changes reduce racial and ethnic disparities

Those 11 policy and strategy solutions are:

Expanded Income Eligibility for Health Insurance

Reduced Administrative Burden for SNAP

Paid Family Leave

State Minimum Wage

• State Earned Income Tax Credit

• Comprehensive Screening and Connection Programs

• Child Care Subsidies

• Group Prenatal Care

• Evidence-Based Home Visiting Programs

• Early Head Start

• Early Intervention Services

The roadmap shows that many states have made progress, but even states that are doing the “best” have plenty of room for growth. And how families are doing depends in part on the policies in their state.

As the roadmap explains, “A state’s policy choices do not operate in isolation from one another. Instead, they interact to create a system of support of varying generosity for parents and children. Tax credits and near-cash supports, such as SNAP, provide valuable resources to families.”

Two “drivers of the variation” are “minimum wage policies and child care subsidy policies.”

“For example, states that set a high minimum wage, but also require parents to pay a high copay or additional fees for a child care subsidy may leave families with a similar level of available resources as parents in other states that provide a lower minimum wage, but do not require parents to pay a copay or fees for subsidized child care.”

The roadmap also details progress in all the states, noting that Massachusetts is a “state leader” in two areas:

• Early Head Start: “based on its significant state investment in the program over the past year. In 2022, the state appropriated $16.5 million for Head Start State Supplement Grants, which fund workforce development supports and enhance program quality of all Head Start and Early Head Start programs in the state,” and

• Early Intervention Services: this state “has one of the strongest EI programs in the country based on the share of children served and the state’s use of Medicaid to expand access for infants and toddlers in need… The state ranks first among all states in the percentage of children served in EI over the course of a year, serving 20.7% of its birth-to-3 population.

When it comes to child care subsidies, however, Massachusetts has room to grow, as the roadmap says:

“Massachusetts has increased its base reimbursement rate by 4.0% for infants in center-based care” over the past year. However, “the state would need to increase its reimbursement rates by an additional $213/month to meet the equal access target (75th percentile of MRS) and by $345/month to meet the estimated true cost of providing base-quality care.”

For states, the path forward is clear, the roadmap says, “The science clearly identifies the conditions necessary to help children thrive. The evidence now exists on how states can invest in effective policies and strategies to foster these conditions.”

Using the roadmap as a guide, states can “undertake these important efforts to ensure all children thrive from the start.”