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Early-Childhood Programs Go From Famine to Feast in New Budget Deal

finance-puzzle-Getty-blog.jpgFederal early-childhood programs that were hanging by a thread, such as home visiting, are set to receive a new infusion of money thanks to the budget deal signed by President Donald Trump on Friday.

Other programs that support families and young children would also see additional funds under the bill, which calls for $300 billion in new military and domestic spending over two years. 

There's still a lot to be worked out, and the deal gives Congress six weeks to hammer out the final details. But congressional leaders have already signaled what they plan to give to certain domestic programs:

• The Child Care and Development Block Grant: The budget deal would double, to $5.9 billion, the amount of discretionary federal funding that goes to this program, which helps pay for subsidized child care for low-income families. The program (known to wonks by the abbreviation CCDBG) currently is serving 1.4 million children, the lowest number in its history. This funding would allow around 230,000 more children to be served.

This is the second time in recent years that CCDBG has received substantive congressional attention. In 2014, lawmakers passed new standards for the program that were intended to promote higher quality, safety, and stability for families receiving the subsidies. The problem, from the perspective of advocates, was that those needed changes did not come with any additional money for the program. Meeting those standards meant that there was less money to actually pay for slots, although the decline in recipients had been taking place long before then, matching an overall slide in federal money for child care. 

So this increase is a big deal both for families who need this support, as well as those who want broader access to high-quality care, supporters said. "This is really exciting, to see that we had this bipartisan agreement in Congress to really make a difference," said Hannah Matthews,  the director of child care and early education programs for the Center for Law and Social Policy. 

• The Maternal, Infant, and Early-Childhood Home Visiting Program: Federally-funded home visiting would receive $400 million a year over five years. Home-visiting programs provide parent coaching to vulnerable families by trained counselors or medical professionals. Federal support of home visiting began during the George W. Bush administration and was expanded during  President Barack Obama's years in office. Studies have shown strong evidence of effectiveness with a direct connection to later academic achievement. For example, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman found that a home-visiting program produced cognitive benefits that were measurable for years, particularly for boys. And an American Enterprise Institute analysis asserts that programs that support family, infants and young children—as home visiting does— show stronger benefits than preschool, which focuses solely on 4-year-olds.

There has been bipartisan support for continuing the program, but disagreement over how it should be paid for. The House supported a bill that would have required states to provide a match to federal funding. The Senate supported paying for the program without requiring a federal match. The just-passed budget deal does not require a state match.

The renewal of the program provides a sense of relief, said Nancy Krause, the statewide early-childhood director for Lutheran Services in Iowa. Her organization has about 350 families enrolled in home-visiting programs. But the agency will have some work to do to rebuild relationships among community partners who were worried about the shaky funding. 

"We've spent the last year trying to reassure community partners, and as time has gone on they're hesitant about referrals and partnering," Krause said. Her work now is "about going back to those relationships, and making sure they understand this is a five-year reauthorization."

• Head Start: The bill provides $650 million to provide disaster relief to Head Start centers affected by the 2017 hurricanes that hit Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands. To give the figure context, the National Head Start Association says that about 100 Head Start centers were damaged or destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The Office of Head Start received $95 million for recovery efforts at that time.

In contrast, more than 95 percent of Puerto Rico's approximately 1,100 Head Start centers were damaged by Hurricane Maria. In Florida, about 150 Head Start centers need major repair, and in Texas, about 20 centers need major repairs. In all, about 97,000 children in those three locations alone attended centers that were affected by the 2017 hurricanes.

The House of Representatives had passed a bill for hurricane relief late last year that included this money, but it was not taken up by the Senate. 

• Community Health Centers: More than 10,000 health centers focus on providing medical care to underserved areas and people who have little or no health insurance, including children. The spending deal would allot nearly $8 billion over two years to the program. Last fiscal year, they were funded at $3.6 billion. 

• Children's Health Insurance Program: This program serves 9 million children and pregnant women who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but cannot get insurance on the private market. As a part of a deal to end a government shutdown in January, Congress funded the program for six years. This new budget deal would pay for CHIP for an additional four years. 

Image by Getty

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