Pave the path to graduation much sooner

Kelli Soyer and Sheila Hansen, The Des Moines Register

Youth all across Iowa will soon walk across the stage to collect their diploma, anticipating the next chapter of their lives. For some, the path to graduation was paved; for others it was the road less traveled. If we want to ensure our kids are successful after leaving that stage, we need to provide supports from the beginning of their journey to assure they don’t crash and burn but, rather, are lifted up to successfully reach their final destination.

The way we fund services for children in our state — and across the nation — reflects the belief that learning starts when a child enters school. However, research tells us otherwise. Brain development starts before birth. Eighty percent of a child’s brain is developed before age 3. This fact underlies the great need to encourage our children’s learning from day one.

Affordable child care and paid parental and sick leave are two critical areas where Iowa falls short in supporting our youngest children. The resulting decisions families must make have consequences not only for them, but for Iowa’s economy now and in the future.

Parents are a child’s best teacher. But more than three out of four Iowa children have all available parents working outside of the home. Children spend an estimated 26 percent of their time in the first 2,000 days of life in child care settings. This means high-quality alternative care is essential to ensure our children’s safety and well-being in the critical early-learning years.

The cost of high-quality child care has become a major household budget expense. In Iowa, the average cost of infant, center-based care now exceeds the annual tuition at one of our public state universities. An Iowa family earning 150 percent of the federal poverty level (just above the eligibility threshold for child care assistance or a little over $32,000 for a family of three) would spend almost one-third of their salary on infant center-based care — if they could afford it. Likely, they can’t. These costs are forcing families to make difficult decisions around the quality of the child care they use and sometimes whether they can remain in the workforce at all.

The U.S. is also one of the only industrialized countries to not guarantee paid parental or sick leave to employees. Without paid leave, families feel incredible economic pressure. Some have even developed fundraising campaigns seeking support from family, friends and strangers to fund leave after the birth of a child. Only 12 percent of private employers offer paid leave. To address this, five states have implemented paid leave policies in recent years. Iowa is not among them.

Paid leave provides concrete benefits to a child’s health and well-being. Independent research released in March reviewed paid maternity leave in 20 low- and middle-income countries and found every one month of maternity leave is associated with a 13 percent reduction in infant mortality in those countries. Additional benefits include higher birth weights, reduced rates of premature births and increased likelihood of breastfeeding.

On May 25, the Child and Family Policy Center and Every Child Matters in Iowa will host a screening of the documentary, “The Raising of America,” a film highlighting important policies that benefit young children and their families, including access to paid sick and family leave and affordable, high-quality child care. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion and community conversation on the implications for Iowa.

The time is right for these conversations. We are approaching an election in November. If they haven’t already, voters will soon start to identify the candidates they will support for local, state and federal office. Access to affordable, high-quality child care and paid family and sick leave are ideas that resonate with many Iowa voters. Iowa voters should ask candidates how they stand on these important policy issues and vote based on how candidates answer.

Kelli Soyer is the state director for Every Child Matters in Iowa. Sheila Hansen is policy director for the Child and Family Policy Center.

Originally published May 23, 2016, The Des Moines Register