We have learned many lessons as we’ve advocated for Help Me Grow replication across the country. Chief among them is this:
The mission of Help Me Grow does not fall exclusively within either the liberal or conservative mainstream. Political beliefs can’t predict whether states and their leadership and policymakers will support early childhood system-building and early detection of vulnerable children at risk for adverse developmental and behavioral outcomes.
Instead, we have found that when states, leaders, and communities share a strong commitment to the strength of families, then they are more likely to devote resources to supporting early childhood system-building and early detection of vulnerable children.
Furthermore, we have seen that many, many states, legislators, and leaders across political parties share a core belief in the importance of supporting optimal child development and strengthening families, which is a primary outcome of Help Me Grow’s mission. The recent inclusion of Help Me Grow in the state budgets of Florida and Minnesota, under the Republican and Democratic leadership, respectively, points to the system’s nonpartisan nature.
Diverging Opinions, Common Ground
The work of otherwise wildly opposed thought leaders reflects this common ground. In November 2014, the New York Times champion of liberal causes Nicholas Kristof began a column stating that Americans love children. He then debunked this statement as myth, citing our abysmal record of low pay to child care workers and low enrollment of young children in early educational programs.
Kristof explored how effective policy and programs can support families and improve child outcomes. He cited the ubiquitous research findings of Nobel Prize laureate James Heckman, who continues to demonstrate the undeniable and substantial return on investment when young children receive high quality early childhood experiences and programs.
Kristof also pointed to the stunning findings of a study in Jamaica that looked at adults who, 20 years earlier, had been growth-stunted as toddlers. These children then received weekly one-hour visits from a health aide who coached parents on how to engage their children. In comparison to a control group receiving no such intervention, these individuals were less likely to have committed violent crimes, stayed in school longer, and earned 25% more as adults.
On the other side of the political spectrum, noted conservative columnist George Will recently wrote on the work of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a social scientist in the mid-1960s and later a U.S. Senator. Moynihan studied the apparent paradox of decreasing minority male unemployment and the simultaneous rise of new, predominantly minority, welfare cases. He traced this paradox, coined “Moynihan’s Scissors,” to a breakdown in the structure and stability of minority families, specifically the absence of fathers and the subsequent generations of young men without strong male role models.
The Question We Share
While Kristof looked at the value of effective systems to improve child outcomes, and Will explored the power of culture to bolster or weaken the family, their two approaches suggest a shared question: How can state, regional and local efforts strengthen families and improve child development?
The answers, as you know, are complex and difficult. The causes of inequality and intergenerational poverty inspire vigorous debate. Researchers continue to try to parse the impact of environmental and familial influences on children’s development. Political divides are powerful and hard to breach.
However, few would disagree with the critical importance of all factors that help strengthen families, such as family structure, early education opportunities, safe neighborhoods, healthy homes, and workforce development, among many others.
Family Engagement Is Our Keystone
A keystone of this work—and what supports the nonpartisan appeal of Help Me Grow—is a widespread commitment to family engagement, no matter which factor is in the spotlight. Only through family engagement can we best understand what families need and how to best provide access to resources.
Our Help Me Grow affiliates take notice of the importance of family engagement through a variety of activities, such as Utah pioneering “Books, Balls, and Blocks” family events and California’s Alameda County enabling direct family access to their online Help Me Grow resource inventory.
Families, not state-operated programs and services, are the most crucial influence on children’s healthy development. Our system-building must continue to focus on enhancing families’ resiliency and the protective factors so important to children’s developmental outcomes. We must continue to embrace support and guidance from across the political spectrum, as all sides offer valuable insights into how to best support and strengthen families with all the tools we have, from programs to services to systems to policies.
As always, we also welcome your thoughts and opinions.