October 18, 2018
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How Maine can give young parents and their kids a boost

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

We know that raising the next generation of Maine children is one of the most important steps we can take to ensure a thriving and prosperous future for all Mainers. And we know that raising children requires significant time and energy on the part of parents who are also typically working to support their families. With an aging population and fewer adults making the decision to have children, the resources we provide young families now is more important than ever.

But with limited access to opportunities to advance their education and find family-sustaining jobs, Maine’s young adult parents face hurdles to support their children and fulfill their potential.

A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Opening Doors for Young Parents, illuminates the most common obstacles young parents face, including an insufficient education, lack of family-sustaining employment opportunities, inadequate and unstable housing, lack of access to quality child care, and financial insecurity. For the 12,000 young children in Maine living with young parents — 85 percent of whom are living in low-income families — we must do more to ensure they have a stable, positive home environment in their earliest and most impactful years.

In Maine and the nation, great progress has been made in reducing the number of teen pregnancies, ensuring young people are more prepared to become parents when they do so later in life. But many young adults having children between ages 18 and 24 face the same obstacles to success as teen parents. Even though Maine has the second-highest high school graduation rate in the country for young parents, only 8 percent of those young parents in Maine have an associate degree or beyond. So even when young parents do secure employment, they lack the advanced education and experience to get the kinds of jobs that provide a family-sustaining wage.

Without these supports in place, young parents in Maine struggle to do more than just get by. And when young parents aren’t thriving, we risk not only their future success, but also their children’s.

There are many programs and opportunities in Maine that could help these young adults prosper professionally and parentally and ensure their children thrive along with them. Lowering the eligibility age for the Earned Income Tax Credit would allow young parents to retain more of their earnings. Home visiting programs offer in-home support for new parents, reducing stress in the home and improving outcomes for their children. Young parents who participate in Early Head Start show i ncreased participation in education and employment, and their children show greater social and cognitive development. Child care subsidies that are more accessible to young parents could alleviate the barrier of affordable child care for working young parents.

These are just some of the programs policymakers in Maine could maximize to open doors of opportunity for our young parents.

In particular, policymakers in Maine can focus on creating more two-generation initiatives, that advance the skills and resources for parents alongside their children. One such program, Family Futures Downeast, in Washington County, combines access to career development, college classes and a supportive learning environment for low-income parents, while also providing high-quality early education for their children. The program is a collaboration between five nonprofit and public organizations and two higher education institutions in Washington County.

Early results show that parents who enter the program with multiple barriers to post-secondary success are more likely to remain in college in their first year and persist in certificate and degree programs, compared with part-time, non-traditional students on the same campuses. Family coaching is an essential strategy in the program that helps connect parents

to needed resources, acquire life skills, and reach academic, career and family goals. Children in the program also benefit from high-quality early learning at co-located centers on each campus. It is a wonderful example of an effective program that puts Maine families on pathways to achievement and economic security.

We have made great strides in helping young people postpone parenthood until they have reached adulthood. Because of this, more children have an opportunity to grow up in stable households with parents who are better prepared to take on the responsibility of raising a child. More can be done in Maine, however, to ensure these young adults are not just getting by in their roles as new parents but are given the opportunity to reach their full potential.

With the next administration, we have an opportunity in our state to create policy changes that target supports for these young adults, and in doing so, create two-generation solutions through programs that support families and ensure future success for our state.

Claire Berkowitz is the executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance.

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