Vanderbilt University’s Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center (PN-3) just issued its annual State Policy Roadmap, exploring ways that the states (and D.C.) can improve conditions so infants and toddlers can thrive. The Roadmap focuses on 12 solutions (see sidebar) shown to enhance well-being and to reduce the stubborn disparities in access to evidence-based programs.
“We are constantly trying to figure out how to make the Roadmap more useful and more used,” says executive director Cynthia Osborne, Ph.D. “We try to provide guidance in bite-size pieces to make it more digestible.” If the Roadmap is a meal, PN-3’s Policy Clearinghouse is the full “grocery store” of research that goes into it, collecting original data on the scope of every strategy.
Dr. Osborne and her team analyze the nuances of these strategies and their implications for families. For example, when a state raises its minimum wage, what are the actual consequences on people’s pocketbooks? When a state expands its earned income tax credit (EITC) from 10% to 20%, what does that mean for the average filer?
In addition to talking to Dr. Osborne, Early Learning Nation magazine interviewed Lynanne Gutierrez, chief operating and policy officer at Groundwork Ohio, to learn how PN-3’s research makes an impact in her state. Here are top takeaways from these conversations.
1. State policy choices make a difference. The Roadmap looks at all of the policy levers available to a state, highlighting the wide differences from state to state. Osborne points to the resources that a low-income family would have, based on the state in which they live. “If that family lives in D.C. and works full time, they have over $47,000 in resources,” she says, referring to minimum wage policies, tax credits, child care subsidies and paid family leave. “If they live in Georgia and they work full time and send their kids to child care, their resources are just over $20,500. And that difference is the direct result of the state’s policy choices.”
The picture in Ohio includes both gains—for example, the extension of postpartum coverage and other measures related maternal and infant health—and areas sorely in need of improvement. “We’re among the worst, in terms of eligibility for publicly funded child care support,” Gutierrez says. “The Roadmap makes that crystal clear, especially when so many states have made significant progress over the past few years.”
2. “Great progress coexists with great vulnerability” is how Osborne summarizes the policy landscape for the youngest Americans this year. (If you think about it, this is a lot like the people whose development it is intended to support: making strides all the time, but vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks beyond their control.)
The never-ending quest for sustainable funding is a prevailing motif in the Roadmap. Osborne praises New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund, Vermont’s new payroll tax, Washington State’s capital gains tax, Louisiana’s commitment of sports betting revenues, and Kansas’ and Missouri’s allocation of tobacco settlement funds but notes that the expiration of federal relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act—which states used to increase reimbursement rates and reduce families’ copays, among other purposes—jeopardizes valuable supports.
3. There’s more to PN-3 Than the Roadmap. In addition to the flagship report and its wealth of information for advocates and policymakers, PN-3 also collaborates directly with state advocacy groups like Groundwork Ohio. Dr. Osborne attended its last Advocacy Day and spoke to professionals, families and community leaders. “She armed us with talking points and some context for where we stand,” recalls Gutierrez, “because we often don’t appreciate the strengths and opportunities in our state.”
Groundwork Ohio also benefited from Dr. Osborne’s appearance at a series of key meetings with legislative leadership. In November, PN-3 hosted six state teams for a three-day policy academy on paid family leave. A Better Balance and other national organizations participated.
4. Good evidence can drive good policy. Advocacy Groups like Groundwork Ohio make strategy decisions at least in part on the evidence available regarding what to fund and how much to invest. “They need this data to make their case,” Osborne says.
Recent advances in state support for birth doula services are a prime example: 30 states have introduced legislation to better support doulas, which had passed in 14 states. More than a dozen states are using Medicaid to reimburse doulas for their services, while others are supporting doulas through credentialing and training.
Paid family leave policies, tax credits and minimum wage increases also proliferated this year. At the same time, Osborne acknowledges that the best policy does not always win. “There are lots of other reasons why people enact policies or don’t that are not necessarily based on the evidence.” And that’s why Groundwork Ohio deploys a range of strategies beyond policy analysis.
5. PN-3 resources complement the lived experience of real people.
Earlier this year, Rebekah Johnson of the Groundwork Ohio Family Action Network told her personal story to the Ohio House of Representatives. (In the photo, you’ll see baby Xoie tucked into her sweater.) After noting that her husband makes $17 per hour as a manager at Pizza Hut, she testified:
“Child care providers are limiting how many publicly funded children they will take due to the drastically reduced rates they are paid. On top of that, they are paid months after the services are provided. On average, our preschool provider informed me she gets paid about 1.5-2 months after she provides care to our son, Xemar. To make matters worse, they are paid on attendance and not enrollment.”
Gutierrez, who came to advocacy after five years as a family lawyer, draws strength from Johnson’s courage in testifying. “If Rebekah can show up, then we can, too,” she says. “Everyone’s fatigued, but somehow our parents still have hope. Maybe it’s because they have to, for the sake of their kids.”
Solutions Tracked in PN-3’s 2023 Roadmap
Policies (defined as “an approach for which the research demonstrates impact on prenatal-to-3 policy goals, and supports clear state legislative or regulatory action. The report measures progress toward implementing the effective policies, therefore, based on the implementation of specific policy actions”)
Strategies (defined as “an evidence-based approach that lacks research-based guidance on precise recommendations for design and implementation. The Report identifies a set of key policy levers that states can implement to increase access to the effective strategy.”)
Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.