Covering Parents is Good for Kids: Healthy Adults Better Equipped to Help At-Risk Children

Today was the first day of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute (GPPI) inaugural LEAD Conference. Our colleagues down the hall at the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform were the first GPPI research center to be featured at the annual LEAD Conference.

The goal of the conference is to bridge research with practice. Dean Montgomery opened the conference by discussing what LEAD stands for: Leadership, Evidence, Analysis and Debate – the four cornerstones of designing effective policy. The topic selected for the inaugural conference was collaborating between fields to improve the lives of at-risk children and youth. Improving the health and well-being of children requires a comprehensive approach that coordinates across many sectors.

At the broadest level, poverty is the most severe risk factor that children face. More than 1 in 5 children live below the federal poverty line. For African-American and Hispanic children, it’s 1 in 3. As we know, poverty impacts development, health and achievement in school. Dean Montgomery emphasized the important role of health coverage—and how covering children is one of the best actions we can take to alleviate poverty. A major theme of the conference is how to address the adverse impacts of child poverty.

One session I attended focused on the importance of the early childhood years (between the ages of 0-3). Panelists emphasized how early experiences are the bedrock for all development and how adverse early childhood experiences show up later in life. The foundation for success in school and life is laid long before a child enters a classroom, learns to talk or works out a math problem.  Focusing on babies’ health and making sure they have nurturing experiences will put babies on the path to becoming healthy and thriving adults. Here are some facts mentioned today that show the importance of the 0-3 developmental period:

  • Skills associated with learning begin at birth
  • Optimal time for learning a language is 8 months of age
  • Optimal higher cognitive function is at 1 year of age
  • The brain of a three-year old is twice as active as the brain of an adult

Babies need good health, strong families and positive early experiences for healthy development. The early years are an unmatched opportunity to route the paths children will take and the best shot at reducing poverty in the long run.

From a health policy perspective, this session reinforced for me how vital it is for mothers to access health care before, during and after pregnancy.  Healthy parents are better equipped to get their children off to a strong start.  Healthy pre-school teachers and child care providers can do a better job of engaging with children especially in those crucial years of 0 to 3.  The Affordable Care Act offers states an opportunity to extend Medicaid coverage to more uninsured parents and other adults.  When states consider whether or not to take part in this option, I certainly hope they’ll consider what a positive impact it would have not only on uninsured adults but on the children in their lives.

Editor’s Note:  This is the sixth in a series of blogs on how covering parents helps children.  Previous blogs on this topic have pointed out that extending Medicaid coverage to parents will provide a good value to states; maternal, infant and early childhood home visiting programs help prevent child maltreatment; covering parents can help depressed mothers get treatment and improve child development;  the single best way to ensure kids access the coverage and care they need is by covering their parents effective outreach to parents will help kids get connected to coverage.