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Is this the most effective new antipoverty program in America?

Home visiting programs, which bring professionals into the homes of low-income families to help address the causes of poverty, are gaining bipartisan support.

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    A sign painted on top of a mural says 'We accept food stamps,' on Aug. 19, 2013 in Harvey, Ill. A bipartisan-supported federal initiative to fund home visiting programs, which brings professionals into the homes of low-income families, promises to help alleviate poverty across the country.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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A new federal antipoverty initiative may be showing the first signs of real progress.

The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program brings professionals into the homes of low-income, high-risk families to help them raise their children in physically, socially, and emotionally healthy environments. The program funds voluntary, evidence-based home visiting initiatives across the United States, with models hailed as both cost-effective and backed by data.

While it’s early yet, MIECHV-funded organizations around the nation have already been showing the first returns on investment, leading Congress to give bipartisan support to a bill that extends the program for another two years.

“This bill addresses an issue that isn’t addressed enough in Congress – the importance of using evidence to figure out what works to reduce poverty in America,” Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, a Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement. “This program is designed to improve outcomes for children and families – especially those children who face the greatest risk of abuse and neglect.”

Though on the decline, poverty remains a critical issue in the United States, where it affected about 45 million people in 2013, according to the US Census Bureau. That same year, more than half of all schoolchildren in the US qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, making low-income students a majority for the first time, according to a report by the Southern Education Foundation.

Home visiting programs are an answer to that problem. They consist of visits from professionals – social workers, parent educators, or registered nurses – who provide health check-ups, parenting advice, and guidance to low-income households with a pregnant mother or young children. The visits are voluntary, but parents are encouraged to spend about an hour with each visit, which can occur anywhere between weekly and monthly, depending on the child’s age and the nature of the program.

Programs have so far shown signs of success.

When single mother Luisa Cintron signed up for Child First, a MIECHV-funded group in Connecticut, she was at her wits' end, The Huffington Post reported. Her 4-year-old son, Maliek, struggled with delayed speech and eczema. Ms. Cintron juggled the boy’s problems with raising a second child, paying bills, and working shifts at a Mexican fast-food restaurant.

Child First sent a mental health clinician to work with Cintron for 18 months, helping her find a stable job and housing, giving her parenting advice, and connecting Maliek to a special education program at the University of Connecticut. Today, Cintron told the news site that not only are her bills getting paid, but she’s become a better parent, as well.

“My patience was extremely low, dealing with the kids, and we worked on that,” she said. “I’m just this brand new person ... I understand them.”

Several studies over the last two decades have supported Cintron’s experience. Experts agree that investing in children’s early development yields returns in the form of a more productive and educated workforce, reduced odds of delinquency, crime, and disease, and savings in taxpayer dollars.  

As of 2011, all but four US states had state- or community-run home visiting programs – and the best of those showed marked improvement for both the families involved and their communities, The Pew Charitable Trust reported.

The problem is that documentation of what causes some initiatives to succeed and others to fail have been inconsistent. By extending MIECHV, Congress and other advocates of home visiting intend to improve the quality of the programs, to create a system that gives states flexibility over their own programs while ensuring a nationwide standard for cost-effectiveness and overall efficiency.

“For any home visiting program to succeed, it needs to be in a context where accurate information on program participants and services is collected and shared with staff and home visitors have access to adequate training,” Dr. Deborah Daro, a senior researcher at the University of Chicago, told the Brookings Institution.

“States may not continue to make investments in its service infrastructure without a reliable and consistent funding stream,” she added. “The federal funding allows states to plan.”

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