Coming Together: Young Children, Families, and the Communities that Support Them

The Center for the Study of Social Policy is pleased to feature a post by guest blogger Joan Lombardi, a national and international early childhood expert and relentless champion for innovative approaches to ensuring children’s healthy development and family well-being. Joan’s work is rooted in the understanding that children and their families thrive as part of strong, responsive, nurturing communities. In today’s post, Joan builds on an earlier contribution in which she explained the essential elements driving the movement to create supportive communities that provide the scaffolding young children and their families need to flourish and succeed. She reflects today on why civic engagement is increasing and why community solutions are gaining traction. In the months ahead, CSSP’s ongoing Young Children and Their Families blog series will highlight community efforts that exemplify Joan’s themes. 

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In the pioneering days of the United States, when someone needed a barn built, the community would come together to make it happen. It was this sense of community that became a source of pride in the country. One modern day version of this “barn building spirit” can be seen in communities across the country that are moving forward to help assure young children are successful and families are supported and strong. From cities to counties to neighborhoods, hope is expressed as people work to make their community “the best place to raise a baby.” From barns to babies, people are coming together in new ways with creativity and commitment to each other. This is a good sign for children, for families, and for the country.

What is driving this local action on behalf of young children families? There does not appear to be one answer, but rather a combination of emerging factors. To start with, a growing number of families have faced a perfect storm of circumstances that have exhausted their ability to respond: the increasing demands of work and family, the separation of extended families, and the cost of both child care and elder care which have outpaced wage increases. Compounding the complexity of this picture is the fact that there are a number of “child care deserts” or places where there may not be even one licensed care provider, particularly for infants and toddlers. In other cases the quality options available to parents are too often beyond their ability to pay.   

This is all taking place at a time when science is telling us the early years matter to long term health, learning, and behavior. We now know that it is not about providing a single program at one point in time, but instead continuity of quality services is essential throughout the early years. Moreover, to really make a difference we need to address the multigenerational issues facing families, not segment off our work on behalf of children from what we do to help the adults in their lives.

When you combine these realities with the renewed sense of civic engagement and leadership at the local level, there is hope for change. Families are making new demands; the status quo is changing. For decades there has been a gap in services from the time children are born until the time they go to school. There has been an assumption that the family alone, without support, will be able to carry on. Yet we have known for decades that children grow up in families, and families live in communities and countries that either support them, or let them struggle. From coast to coast, from urban areas to rural communities, we are beginning to see new leadership from the public and private sector speaking out and saying we can do better than this for our children

There seems to be common goals emerging and a trend to use data to drive change. Communities are looking at their data and asking: How are our young children and families doing? Are children born healthy? Are children thriving at three? Ready for success at school entry? Learning, well rounded, and secure as they move through the primary grades? We know there are severe and widening inequities for some children based on income, race, ethnicity, and immigration status, among other conditions: How do we work towards eliminating these inequities? How do we assure that all children have a strong start?

While the program and policy response may vary depending on the existing services and the context and climate in the state, there are at least three buckets of services that need to be addressed: health, family support, and child care which can promote learning and development. These essential components must be available across a community in a more coordinated way, not starting here and stopping there. Increasingly, communities are calling for a health and family support system that is affordable, that connects families to services, that assures early home visits, and that provides a “navigator or mentor” to families, rather than assuming  they can flourish without a social network of support. Within the health care system, innovations associated with the pediatric care team are building new, universal, non-stigmatizing forms of support. On the child care side, new efforts are emerging to create support for child care providers and to find new mechanisms at the community level to support both home based providers and quality centers, including better facilities and improved compensation.

But a system of early childhood services needs to be combined with two essential elements to thrive: sufficient financing from the federal, state, and local level to allow access to good services throughout the early years, and broader community efforts to assure safety and security, access to healthy food, and adequate housing and ample opportunities for better jobs and increased opportunities for all. None of this will happen without active citizen voice.

Whether it be building a barn, or supporting a family, for the country to move forward successfully it is collective action that will matter. It will take all of us coming together to make the difference.

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Joan Lombardi Ph.D. directs Early Opportunities LLC, a philanthropic advisement service focused on the development of young children, families, and the communities that support them. Read more here.