The Hidden Piece of Good News in Congress’s Budget Deal

The home visiting program reauthorized by Congress helps alleviate inequality by preparing low-income kids for school.

The bipartisan budget deal that Congress agreed to last month failed to solve the plight of the Dreamers and extends tax cuts that will add billions to the deficit. Still, quietly buried in the text of the law is much-needed good news for low-income mothers and their children: a provision reauthorizing federal support for home visiting programs that help prepare young children for school.

The new spending bill provides $400 million a year for five years to the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV), passed by Congress in 2010. The program provides at-risk pregnant women and new parents with services such as home medical care, parental training, and nutrition guidance. Giving low-income children a more stable start ends up significantly diminishing future public expense on healthcare and supplementary education. In short, home visiting programs help alleviate inequality while creating positive long-lasting results that reverberate throughout whole communities.

Under the home visiting model, nurses—called “mentors”—visit young parents in their homes and coach them one-on-one on everything from how to play with their children in a way that teaches basic skills to providing tips on discipline to how to cook healthy meals. Because home visiting programs create an environment that supports a child’s health and education, the child then is more likely to enter preschool or kindergarten “school ready”—with age appropriate knowledge and a sense of self-efficacy—and can meet her peers on equal footing. When a child has someone at home who interacts with them regularly and cultivates a positive, supportive environment, the child’s self-esteem grows. Mentors also teach parents how to play with their child in ways that promote intellectual development, so that kids learn basics such as the ABCs, numbers, and colors.

The program provides parents with a person they trust and can turn to for advice about the frustrations of parenthood. Mentors teach mothers how to cope with the stress of motherhood in productive ways that help keep them in good mental health, while also helping them find resources like low-sugar baby formula and access to continuing adult education that ultimately increase the quality of life for families.

These kinds of home visiting programs are both effective and inexpensive. Teaching parents to support and nurture a child’s academic progress at home can decrease the chances a child will have to repeat a grade, saving taxpayers up to $72,000 by the time a child completes high school.

In Fairfax County, Virginia, for example, families enrolled in the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program receive weekly visits from mentors, who bring books and supplies and coach parents through a set curriculum. One of the nation’s largest home visiting programs, HIPPY—which is partly funded by MIECHV—serves 16,000 children and families in the United States, as well as thousands more globally.

Some MIECHV programs, such as the Nurse-Family Partnership, even help at-risk mothers foster the self-sufficiency needed to return to their own education. For example, 31 percent of mothers participating in the partnership who lack high school degrees either gain a diploma or GED by the time their child turns one year old.

As a Fairfax County Public Schools teacher, I can testify to the importance of preparing children to enter school. Students who come to school “school ready” enter the classroom with a better understanding of behavioral expectations and academic rigor. Students who aren’t prepared to enter school as children often struggle—behaviorally, socially, and academically—adjusting to the newness of the classroom. In turn, they start beneath their peers, and risk falling further behind.

The spending deal passed by Congress leaves many, many vexing policy problems unresolved. Still, it’s refreshing to see that, at least in one respect, Congress is recognizing the societal benefit of low-cost, high-reward programs that work to reduce inequality and create opportunity for low-income kids.

Juliet Amann and Emily Langhorne

Juliet Amann is a Fairfax County Public School teacher and the education policy intern at the Progressive Policy Institute. Emily Langhorne is the project manager and policy analyst for Reinventing America's Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute.