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Jennifer Garner: A lifeline for poor families

Congress has once again shortchanged kids. Lawmakers finally authorized the Children's Health Insurance Program in a ...

Posted: Feb. 1, 2018 12:50 PM
Updated: Feb. 1, 2018 12:50 PM

Congress has once again shortchanged kids. Lawmakers finally authorized the Children's Health Insurance Program in a short-term budget deal passed by Congress, but they failed to act on another key program for poor kids -- the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV).

Through my work with Save the Children over the past decade, I've seen how important high-quality home visiting programs are for families.

A while back, I got the opportunity to accompany one of Save the Children's home visitors to the home of a family in the Central Valley of California. The home had something I have sadly come to expect -- silence. I didn't hear a baby babbling or a parent talking. I have seen it too many times before. Poverty dulls the senses and saps hope. It creates silence.

But home visiting programs break that silence. They equip parents with the necessary skills to help their kids grow and develop so they are healthy and ready for school. I've seen children light up when they hold a book or roll a ball for the first time. I've seen mothers breathe a sigh of relief when a home visitor -- who becomes their champion -- knocks on the door.

That's why I'm outraged that Congress has not reauthorized MIECHV, which provides grants to state and local service providers that target the needs of their communities. Despite vocal support from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, partisan politics is getting in the way of thousands of families around the country benefiting from this life-changing voluntary program.

Of the children and families who benefit from the program, 98% show improvement in at least four key areas, ranging from health to school readiness. And with the proper nurturing in these early, formative years, children are better set up for success later in life. In fact, various home visiting programs have been linked to improvements in children's behavior, cognitive development, performance in school, and graduation rates.

In one such program for at-risk toddlers, more than 75% of the children who participated in the program graduated high school -- compared with just over 50% of children who did not participate.

MIECHV is a good financial investment, too. For every dollar used toward MIECHV, there is a potential return of at least $2 through a reduction in remedial education and health care costs, and an increase in self-sufficiency.

The home visitor who joined me at that silent home in California encouraged the mom to interact with her baby. In just a short time, I saw a mom grow more comfortable in talking with her child -- babbling back and forth and rolling a ball. I saw a greater connection form -- one that likely would not have happened without that home visitor's help.

In 2016, these types of connections were created between more than 160,000 parents and children across the country with the help of this federal program. By failing to reauthorize MIECHV, Congress is saying that the program and the people it serves are not a priority. But the benefits are too big to ignore.

I grew up one generation removed from poverty. I knew children in my own school in West Virginia who had to cut holes in the toes of their shoes because their families couldn't afford to buy new ones for their growing feet. Some of my first-grade classmates didn't move on to second grade when I did. I couldn't stand up for those children when I was a kid, but I can stand up for their families and those like them now.

A skilled home visitor is trained to help parents provide emotional and cognitive support for their children, which helps protect their kids from the stressors of poverty. That's how resilient a child's brain is. It takes so little -- like reading a book or counting fingers -- and does so much.

As Frederick Douglass said, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." It's also less expensive. That's why I hope you'll join me in urging Congress to support the reauthorization of MIECHV. By helping mothers and fathers be the best parents they can be, we can put more children on a path toward success.

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