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Investing in mothers, early childhood is vital to Ohio's future

Published By Dayton Daily News on June 29, 2023
Andrea White In The News

Ohio has a bright future ahead of us, with record growth and record new industries choosing to expand here. The question is – are we ready for it?

We have an opportunity with this state biennium budget to firmly establish the next generation of Ohioans with the education and training they need to grow and thrive – as individuals and as part of their collective communities. But it requires us, as legislators, to invest now in early childhood health, development and education.

Within the House budget, passed in late April, we invested more than $680 million toward best-practice programs that are proven to change the trajectory for pregnant women, infants and young children – specifically targeting areas of our state with the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality. These investments are vital for the present and the future of Ohio children and their families.

 Ohio parents need access to safe, affordable, quality infant, toddler and preschool programs.

Almost every part of our state is experiencing a striking shortage of quality child care and early learning options. Unfortunately, in early child care and education alone, the Ohio Senate has reduced funding by $32 million. This decision will impact not only our current workforce, but our future workforce as well.

 Last fall, 65% of Ohio kindergartners were not ready to learn when they entered their classrooms. Additionally, 57% of eighth graders did not test proficient in math in 2022 - the numbers were even higher at that grade level for Ohio students at 71% on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Decades of studies confirm children who do not show up ready for kindergarten are much less likely to hit their third and eighth grade learning targets, stay on track to graduate high school and pursue college or career attainment. Instead of facing a bright future with higher earnings and better health outcomes, children who fall behind academically are also more likely to be engaged with the juvenile or adult corrections systems and be reliant on public benefits. Ohio kids are starting behind and staying behind. As legislators, we must put a down payment on the needs of our youngest children to give them the best possible position for future success.

Educating our children is not the only space where Ohio is failing. Our state has the 41st worst infant mortality rate in the country, and more than one in 150 Ohio babies don’t live to see their first birthday. One in four pregnant moms do not have access to prenatal care in the first trimester, and half of Ohio infants and toddlers live in poverty.

We have a serious problem on our hands. To give our infants and children a shot at their brightest futures, we must invest now in their first 1,000 days of life – before it’s too late. Pregnant women, infants and toddlers need access to basic services like health care, nutrition and affordable housing. One example: almost half of Ohio women and children who qualify for the federal Special Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) aren’t currently participating due to transportation and administrative hurdles. To help reduce these hurdles, our budget needs to invest in technology and supports that most states already use to give mothers and children who qualify access to healthy nutrition.

The Senate’s cuts to the House-passed budget included reductions in preventive wraparound services and continuous health care coverage for our state’s most at-risk pregnant moms and young children ages birth through three. These include prenatal and newborn health grants and services targeting our highest areas of infant and maternal mortality, focused doula services, housing initiatives and early childhood mental health supports. All are geared toward saving lives and improving health outcomes, while significantly reducing Medicaid costs.

The general assembly finds themselves at a crossroads as members of the House and Senate meet in a conference committee to work out the difference between the two budgets – and figure out a way to do even more to support our most vulnerable young children. These investments are critical to the growth of Ohioans and the future of Ohio. We need to do better and can by strategically investing now instead of paying so much more later. Our investments in everyday Ohioans will pay great dividends in the health and vitality of our people, our workforce, our economic growth and our communities. By laying a strong foundation for our children now, we give them the building blocks they need for a successful future.

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