Policy Resource

Baby Facts: What the Super Committee Should Know

Oct 24, 2011

The Super Committee (a.k.a., the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) is getting down to specific proposals for reducing the deficit.

These twelve Senators and Representatives are going to make recommendations that could affect the futures of many infants and toddlers. It stands to reason that they should understand the vulnerability of babies in their states and how programs they may be eyeing for cuts help support the healthy development of the youngest children. In short, they should have all the “Baby Facts.” A few weeks ago, ZERO TO THREE published fact sheets about babies in the eleven states represented on the Super Committee. Infant-toddler advocates in these states can help make sure the Committee has all the facts by downloading and forwarding the state fact sheet to their Members.

The states represented on the Committee stretch from sea to shining sea and from our northern border to the Rio Grande. The most sparsely populated state, Montana, has 36,000 infants and toddlers while California and Texas have well over a million. The states’ overall rank for children’s wellbeing according to Kids’ Count ranges from 3rd (Massachusetts) to 45th (South Carolina).

While we didn’t plan a cross-state comparison, we noticed considerable variation on some indicators among states. The first is the income of the families with infants and toddlers. Nationally, we know that close to half of all infants and toddlers live in low-income families and more than one in four live in outright poverty. Five of the Super Committee states far outstrip the national numbers: in Arizona, Michigan, Montana, Texas, and South Carolina half or more of all children under three live in low-income families. The percentage of babies in poverty in these states, plus Ohio, equals or exceeds the national percentage. South Carolina has the greatest proportion of young children in poverty, 31%, while Massachusetts and Maryland have the smallest, at 16%. (It is a measure of the current economic times that one in six children living in poverty would be considered good news.)

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program helps many poor families with infants and toddlers make ends meet. Anywhere from a third (Arizona) to more than half (South Carolina) of TANF households have children under age three. But very few at-risk children receive early developmental support. Of the 1,275,322 poor infants and toddlers residing in these eleven states, only 3% have a place in Early Head Start.

One other number particularly stood out. Nationally, one in ten children lack health insurance. This coverage is a big change from 1998 when 28% of children lacked insurance, a drop achieved through the expansion of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Among the Super Committee states, Montana exceeds this proportion for children under age six, at 13.5%. But the number that jumps out at us is 1—as in only 1% of young children in Massachusetts lack health insurance. As Congress and the nation debates whether or not the health care reform bill was a good thing, they might consider the fact that 99% of babies in a state with a similar program have a way of paying for those all-important, not to mention frequent, visits to the pediatrician in the first years of life. We know that Medicaid’s impacts on the health outcomes for young children are especially pronounced.

Another fact about babies: the majority of their moms work. In the Super Committee states, between 53% (Arizona) and 68% (Massachusetts) of mothers with infants are in the labor force. Child care is expensive, eating up between 27% in South Carolina and 67% in Massachusetts of the median income for a single mother. The Child Care and Development Fund helps parents pay for care, but stagnant funding, aside from a temporary boost from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, means only one in six eligible children receives assistance.

Learning about babies in their states might lead the Super Committee to think about federal programs in a different light. It is easy to think that, in a country as wealthy and powerful as ours, only a handful of babies would be at risk for not reaching their potential. But a significant portion of our youngest children lack supports for healthy bodies and positive brain development during a pivotal period of life—supports that federal programs often help families supply.

It is penny-wise and pound-foolish to reduce supports that can help avert or diminish adversity. Early adverse experiences resonate throughout a child’s life, affecting future health and productivity. As economist James Heckman has said, “Underdeveloped human potential burdens our economy and leaves us with a workforce that is less than it could be.” In other words, leaving so many children at risk does not bode well for the future economic competitiveness of our nation. And that’s a fact.

You might also be interested in