State Policymakers Can Give Children the Best Start in Life by Maximizing and Aligning Investments

So much about a child’s health and growth is set in the years before their third birthday, when their brain is developing at a faster pace than at any time in life. As research continues to confirm, the early years of a child’s life set the stage for a lifetime of good health and well-being. We know the right investments in children and families can go a long way towards reducing chronic conditions and health disparities in the future. For that reason, we’ve honed in on the way states can make the most of Medicaid and CHIP for young children.

But, of course, many systems — not just health — touch the lives of young children and their families. Health leaders are increasingly working on how to create meaningful change within and across these sectors — no easy task! — where state policymakers, in particular, have a big role to play.

In that spirit, we want to give kudos to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) for broadening the conversation to help policymakers learn about policies that impact young children’s health beyond the traditional health system. The Foundation’s new six-brief series, developed by Ascend at the Aspen Institute, highlights the importance of the first three years of a child’s life. These briefs offer state policymakers information on some of the best ways to impact early childhood health, including maternal and child health, family economic stability, healthy food and nutrition, early care and education, and family and medical leave.

We know investments in young children pay off – especially in the long-run — but benefits are not limited to one system. The briefs highlight the cross-sector nature of investing in early childhood, and the ways investments in prevention, for instance, can lead to better health outcomes that can yield savings in education and criminal justice budgets as more children come to school ready to learn and meet their full potential.

Which brings us back to Medicaid and CHIP.

These public coverage programs have a critical role to play on their own, but states go even further by aligning Medicaid investments with those of other systems. For example, as Say Ahhh! readers know, a growing number of states are joining New York and Oregon in the quest to create cross-sector accountability for school readiness. This also isn’t lost on RWJF. In addition to supporting the work of a number of groups (including a grateful CCF!) in this area, the Foundation spearheaded a new 8-state initiative, Aligning Early Childhood and Medicaid, for Medicaid and other state agency directors responsible for a wide range of early childhood programs. Led by the Center for Health Care Strategies in partnership with the National Association of Medicaid Directors and ZERO TO THREE, the project seeks to 1) develop and test the alignment of program investments between Medicaid and other early childhood systems; and 2) demonstrate the value of cross-sector alignment. We will be eager to learn more about the project’s lessons as it progresses.

Supporting families with young children is a golden opportunity to set both parents and children on a healthy path. Through cross-sector investments in health, work supports, healthy food and child care, state policymakers can drive meaningful change to improve the lives of the families they serve.