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The first three years of a child’s life are the most critical for brain development, yet Mississippi has done too little to support this cognitive evolution. The state needs to improve its policies to ensure children are in good health, have stable homes and have access to early learning opportunities.

Those are the findings of a new report, the State of Babies Yearbook 2019, released by the nonprofits Zero to Three and ChildTrends. The authors of the report analyzed state policies and various indicators related to infants, toddlers and families, including data related to health, families, and positive early learning experiences, to determine how states are doing when it comes to giving young children opportunities to thrive.

Several states, including Colorado, Maine, Washington and Vermont, were identified as leading the nation with policies that support healthy infants and toddlers. Mississippi was ranked in the bottom of four tiers, along with several other states including Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois and Texas. Nationwide, the report found 45 percent of infants and toddlers live in households with incomes that are less than twice the federal poverty level and 21 percent live with a single parent. Nearly 10 percent live in a household led by a grandparent.

In Mississippi, 50 percent of non-Hispanic black infants and toddlers live in poverty compared to the national average of 39.5 percent; 32 percent of all infants and toddlers live in poverty, compared to 22.7 percent of infants and toddlers nationwide. One in three infants and toddlers live in a single parent household, compared to the national average of 21.5 percent.

The state ranked poorly on four of six indicators of good health, with a high infant mortality rate, high rates of food insecurity, a high percentage of mothers reporting less than optimal mental health, and a high percentage of babies with low birthweight. The state scored below the national average on the number of women who received no prenatal care, or received it late, and on the number of uninsured infants and toddlers.

Mississippi performed slightly better in the strong families category, although the state has a higher rate of infant/toddler maltreatment than the national average and too few families in need are served by home visiting programs, many of which have been proven to lead  to positive outcomes for children and families. The state also has a lower rate of families in poverty receiving benefits through the Temporary Aid for Needy Families program than the national average.

In the positive early learning experiences category, Mississippi was recognized as having, on average, relatively affordable infant child care, although another report recently found that there are only enough spots in licensed child care centers for 23 percent of infants in the state. Mississippi’s score on the percentage of infants and toddlers who receive developmental screenings was the lowest in the nation; the state’s scores on the percentage of parents who read to their baby every day and on the percentage of income-eligible infants and toddlers with access to the federally-funded Early Head Start program were also low.

The authors of the report identified policies that may better support families, some of which Mississippi has adopted. Although the state has not participated in Medicaid expansion, it was recognized for allowing Medicaid to cover several aspects of infant and toddler health, including social-emotional screenings for young children. The report highlighted the fact that the state does not have family policies such as paid family leave or paid sick time to cover care for a child, but credited Mississippi for including families with earnings above 200 percent of the federal poverty level as eligible for child care subsidies.

This story about Mississippi was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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