Gov. Paul LePage makes the argument often that Maine shouldn’t rely on federal funds to sustain important state programs, citing a $17 trillion national debt and gridlock in Congress.
If the governor is challenging Maine policymakers to wean state programs from federal dependence, we have one program to add to the list of those that are over-reliant on federal money and are worthy of a steady stream of state investment: home visiting for families with newborns.
Each year, about 2,500 Maine families who are expecting and have newborns and young children work closely with trained professionals who visit families at home and, essentially, help parents become better parents. Parents, after all, are a child’s first teachers.
The home visitors advise parents on proper prenatal health care, appropriate nutrition for their young children, positive discipline techniques, the dangers of secondhand smoke, methods for handling parental stress and more. If a parent is caught in a domestic violence situation, she’s advised on the help available to her and on crafting a plan for her and her child’s safety. If a parent wants to further his education, the home visitor can point him in the right direction.
Home visitors, who are trained and certified, also stress to parents the importance of simply speaking with their newborn children, and often. Most parents involved earn less than $19,000 annually, and a disproportionate percentage are teenagers, according to the organization Maine Families, which runs Maine’s home visiting program.
At the moment, home visiting in Maine is heavily reliant on federal funds. The program is in the midst of a four-year, $30 million federal grant that provides the bulk of needed funding. There’s one year of funding remaining before the grant runs out.
The program has received about $2 million annually from state funds in recent years. That’s down more than half since 2009, when state funding peaked at more than $5.4 million. (To be sure, that was before Maine received the $30 million federal grant; Maine was one of nine states to receive the federal funds.)
It’s unknown whether additional federal funds will be available to Maine to continue the program at its current level. So here’s why home visiting deserves a spot in Maine’s state budget:
— Home visiting offers a solid return on the state’s investment, and the state doesn’t even have to wait long to experience the return. A recently published study by researchers at Duke University tracked nearly 5,000 North Carolina babies born between July 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2010. Half of the families participated in a home visiting program while the other half didn’t. Infants from participating families visited the emergency room about 50 percent less often than those from families that didn’t participate. The North Carolina program cost about $700 per family. The costs of emergency room visits often — and easily — run into the thousands of dollars, meaning the savings from fewer ER visits can accrue quickly. The state, through Medicaid, is the payer for many of those visits.
— The short-term benefits might be easier to digest for state budget writers, who work in two-year cycles, but the benefits of home visiting multiply in the long term. One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association of a semi-rural New York community found that 19-year-olds from low-income families that received home visits from nurses were less likely than their counterparts to be arrested and to use Medicaid.
The returns can also extend to the academic setting. Recent research from Stanford University shows the achievement gap between children from low- and higher-income families is evident as early as 18 months. Much of it has to do with the simple fact that higher-income parents speak so much more to their children than low-income parents. By age 3, the study found, children from more affluent households have heard as many as 30 million more words than their lower-income peers.
Home visiting programs can narrow that achievement gap. That’s why home visitors emphasize to new parents the importance of frequent chatter with their children.
With a greater state commitment, Maine’s home visiting program could reach more families who would benefit from it.
In 2012, more than a fifth of Maine children lived in poverty, and the state’s home visiting program reaches about 1,000 of the approximately 13,000 babies born in Maine each year. That’s about 8 percent of all births in Maine, and potentially less than 40 percent of babies born into poverty.
LePage and state lawmakers shouldn’t put the state’s home visiting program at risk once its federal funding potentially ends. As with any investment in early childhood, it might be difficult to add the cost to the state budget, but the cost from lost savings and lost opportunity is much greater.