Despite recent dissension in Austin, it may surprise some to know the Texas Legislature has found consensus in supporting a growing number of low-income new parents and their newborns: In the just-completed regular legislative session, elected officials unanimously agreed to expand investment in a novel yet common-sense concept that has garnered national and international support but received much less attention than some of the more contentious issues making recent Texas headlines.
The concept is voluntary home visitation, a cost-effective strategy that offers professional help to those needing extra support to be successful parents in the beginning of their children’s lives. And because of this smart policy, we aren’t just investing but ensuring that we are investing wisely. We are building the accountability structure to make sure taxpayers and participating families are getting real returns from these programs.
Home-visiting matches low-income new parents who are interested in receiving services with visiting nurses or trained providers who offer information and support from the time a mother is pregnant throughout the first few years of her child’s life: the most critical infant-development period. This parent guidance happens in the venue where vulnerable, at-risk families are often most open and comfortable: their homes.
Decades of research underscore the positive outcomes of this work. Studies find that pregnant mothers who participated in one home-visiting program had 48 percent fewer low-birth-weight babies. This is important because low-birth-weight babies have trouble eating, staying warm and fighting infections and may develop learning disabilities. By avoiding this, the program can reduce medical and education problems, saving the families, taxpayers and the medical system significant long-term costs.
Children participating in a home-visiting program were better prepared to learn when they entered school and half as likely to repeat first grade as children without such benefits. One program’s longitudinal study showed that the children of parents who received home visiting were significantly less likely to be abused and neglected. When properly administered and monitored, home visiting can save public funds by producing healthier families and children, can help children do better in school and avoid repeating grades, and will result in fewer children ending up in the costly child welfare, mental health and juvenile corrections systems.
What’s more, the magic of these programs is they have a two-generation impact. It isn’t just that children do better; parents also learn to become more responsible for their own health, education and self-reliance. Better parents raise more successful children.
That’s why 181 Texas legislators — every single member of the Senate and House, as well as our governor — supported the original Nurse-Family Partnership home-visiting legislation and funding in 2007 and renewed funding every biennium since.
Yet, even with the new funds allotted this past session, Texas will only be reaching 10.5 percent of the estimated 212,000 highest-need families that currently qualify and could benefit from the program: Those are the number of Texas families with children age 6 and under earning less than $11,525 per year. Clearly, more funding is needed.
Texans should focus on areas where we agree and that need all of our collective support. We need to raise our voices louder on this bipartisan issue and request our elected officials expand voluntary programs that reach out to those new mothers, newborns and families most in need. Supporting these home-visiting programs — and providing new Texas babies the right start to life — is one public policy investment upon which we can all concur.
Madeline McClure is the founding executive director of TexProtects, the Texas Association for the Protection of Children.