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After various family support policies were dropped from federal legislation earlier this year, states have been left to their own devices to stabilize child care and boost the economic well-being of their families. But November election results show that several states are stepping up: In New Mexico, voters passed an amendment to increase funding for early childhood education, making funding early childhood education part of the state’s constitution. In Colorado, voters passed a proposition that raises taxes on higher-income households to pay for universal free school lunches for children. And in Nebraska, voters approved a $15 minimum wage, which will support family economic stability.
This progress reflects priorities for voters, said Mandy Ableidinger, Senior Policy Director for the nonprofit Alliance for Early Success, in a statement to The Hechinger Report. “Ballot measures are opportunities for voters to speak directly to policymakers, and in red, blue, and purple states, Americans voted to support children and families,” she said. “In the coming months, parents and caregivers are going to be looking to newly-elected leaders at the federal, state, and local levels to make investments that support thriving families — particularly when states spend down the federal dollars for rescue, relief, and rebuilding.”
These election results are not the only good news for families and children. Researchers at the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center at Vanderbilt University say that, over the past year, a small but growing number of states have adopted some — or all—of the five policies the Impact Center says are proven to increase infant, toddler, and family well-being. Those policies include increasing the minimum wage to $10 or more, reducing the administrative burden on receiving food benefits, expanding income eligibility for health insurance and offering a refundable state earned income tax credit of at least 10 percent.
In a report released earlier this month, the center found that five states and the District of Columbia fully rolled out all five policies in 2022 — two more states than last year. In the same time period, an additional eight states fully launched at least one of the policies. For example, Connecticut rolled out a 12-week paid family leave program, and Delaware, Nevada and Virginia increased their state minimum wage to at least $10 an hour.
Over the next few years, more states are slated to launch similar policies. Hawaii, Delaware and Maryland have already passed legislation that increases minimum wage or family leave. Those laws will go into effect between 2023 and 2026.
But even these efforts could use an assist from federal investment. Early childhood advocates say while they welcome state progress, they are hoping federal lawmakers will prioritize children and families when Congress convenes in January. “We’re optimistic that Congress will follow suit and put kids and families at the forefront of its agenda,” said Christy Gleason, Vice President of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns at Save the Children Action Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, in a statement. “At the end of the day, children are our future — and it’s about time we begin to seriously invest in it.”
Policies aimed at supporting infants, toddler and families are critical to ensure children are healthy and secure during the most critical years of brain development, said Cynthia Osborne, executive director of the center and a professor of early childhood education and policy at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. “We know that the first three years of life are the most sensitive and rapid period of development that lays the foundation for all health and well-being,” Osborne said. Poor early experiences can also impact health later on, educational outcomes and graduation rates, she added.
The voter-driven changes and the policy shifts at the state level both come at a time when families say they need more help.
The percentage of families with young children reporting “material hardship” — difficulty paying at least one basic need, such as food, utilities, or housing — increased from 28 percent to 44 percent between April and July 2022. The figure comes from a new report by RAPID-EC, a bi-weekly survey that has been tracking the experiences of caregivers and families with young children during the pandemic.
And families with young children also face dramatically different levels of support depending on where they live. In Nevada, New Jersey and California, for example, more than 20 percent of eligible families with children are not receiving federal food benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), compared to 2 percent who are going without the benefit in Tennessee. In Wyoming, nearly 17 percent of households with young children report food insecurity, compared to less than 2 percent in New Hampshire, Kansas and South Dakota.
Even with this new momentum, the Policy Impact Center report found six states, including Texas and Georgia, have yet to adopt and implement any of the policies that could most help their youngest residents.
New laws or regulations aren’t always needed to close these gaps, Osbourne said. States could get started by eliminating burdensome administrative policies, such as requirements that families apply for programs in person rather than online. States can also extend the reach of current programs through creative funding solutions, she said. For example, Massachusetts has used Medicaid funding to increase the number of young children with disabilities who are served through its early intervention program.
As states make some progress, Osborne said it’s important they keep moving forward and don’t rest. “Although we’re always excited when states make improvements in one of these policy areas, they need to be thinking holistically about how they can support families,” Osborne said. “We want to send the message to states is that there’s no one policy … we need to do it all.”
This story about family support programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.