Gilda Z. Jacobs: Want Michigan to become a stronger state? It’s time to ‘Think Babies.’

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As an advocate, a former lawmaker, a mom and a grandma, I don’t need research to tell me that what happens in a child’s first three years is critical to the rest of their life. But if I did require research, there’s plenty of it.  

Brain growth for infants and toddlers is faster in those first three years than at any other time in life — babies form more than one million new neural connections every second. When these babies get what their growing brains need to thrive, they develop into vibrant kids, full of promise. Those important first three years lay the groundwork for the best possible outcomes throughout a child’s life. 

When babies and toddlers have a strong foundation — good health, strong families and positive early learning experiences — we build a stronger society for all of us. And last week, with the launch of the Think Babies Michigan Collaborative, our state is much closer to building that foundation.

The Think Babies Michigan Collaborative is made up of over 1,300 parents, advocates and organizations around the state who are committed to securing a better future for Michigan’s youngest children and their families, and the group has received a multi-year grant from the Pritzker Children’s Initiative to do that work. 

But in order to create that bright future, we must first examine the current reality.

The Michigan League for Public Policy’s Kids Count project uses data-based profiles to help inform decision-makers. And despite the hard work of parents and advocates around the state, the data shows that we have a lot more work to do.

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While Michigan shows improvement in maternal and child health, including health care coverage, prenatal care, birth outcomes and receiving preventative care, tens of thousands of families with infants and toddlers are not able to access the high-quality programs, services and opportunities they need to raise healthy and thriving children.

The Kids Count data profiles released last spring showed that: 

  • 32% of moms in Michigan still lacked adequate prenatal care.
  • 42% of children lived in families that were struggling to make ends meet. 
  • 44% of Michiganders lived in “child care deserts,” areas where there are more children than licensed child care spots. 

None of these figures are acceptable.

And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the lives of so many in our state.

The outcomes are even more dire when broken down by race or geography. A child’s well-being should not be determined by their race, place or income, but data shows that this is the reality. By nearly every measure, children living in poverty and Black and Brown families face the biggest obstacles — low birthweight, unstable housing and limited access to quality early learning experiences. The life-altering impact of these disparities begins even before they are born. 

Every parent wants to give their child a strong start in life. But the experience of the pandemic has laid bare what families already knew: Our systems for supporting the health and well-being of young children and families are frayed, and patchwork solutions will not mend them. That’s why Think Babies Michigan is advocating for sound policies that invest in the potential of every child:

  • Ensure that race, income and ZIP code do not determine a child’s destiny in Michigan.
  • Develop a statewide, cross-sector infant-toddler workforce strategy.
  • Expand enrollment in and access to high quality child care, early intervention, home visiting and preventative care services.
  • Strengthen how families learn about and access programs and services.
  • Actively support efforts led by partners and allies that positively impact infants and toddlers and their families.

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These are ambitious goals, but they must be met if we’re going to make Michigan a better place to have a baby and raise a family. And no one understands that better than the hardworking parents who live in our state.

One of the most powerful aspects of Think Babies Michigan is that it’s the only state in this national movement that has intentionally put parents at the center. Parents serve as co-leaders and have played an integral role in the entire policy agenda-setting process. It means so much to see these moms and dads — who are in the thick of raising kids amid a global pandemic — making such a huge difference for all families in our state. We cannot do this work without parent voices.

Whether you’re a parent, a grandparent, a child care provider or a CEO, we encourage you to join the Think Babies Michigan Collaborative. You have the power to be part of a profound change for kids and their families in our state.

Think Babies Michigan is a collaborative led by an executive committee that includes The Early Childhood Investment Corporation (ECIC), Hope Starts Here: Detroit’s Early Childhood Partnership, Michigan’s Children, Michigan Council for Maternal and Child Health, the Michigan League for Public Policy, and parent leaders Meredith Kennedy, of the Traverse City area, and Quinn Wright, of Metro Detroit.