Healthy kids, healthy city

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May 28, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
Mayor Betsy Hodges with Carolyn Smallwood, left, and Peggy Flanagan, right, co-chairs of the Cradle to K Cabinet.
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
Hodges’ Cradle to K initiative seeks a cohesive early-childhood strategy

Mayor Betsy Hodges announced the members of her Cradle to K Cabinet May 23, acting on a campaign pledge to close Minneapolis’ gaps by focusing on its citizens’ first years of life.

Hodges’ Cradle to K initiative is premised on the idea that early disparities in health and childcare can affect children through their school years and into adulthood. The cabinet is tasked with coordinating the existing resources available to expectant mothers and young children and identifying where more can be done.

“The idea is that, for children age zero to 3, that very early beginning is an important time for health and brain development — early experiences that set kids up well for early education,” Hodges said.

She directed the cabinet to work on three key issues: “healthy starts” for newborns and their mothers, stable housing and high-quality childcare that focuses on child development.

Scheduled to convene for the first time in June, the Cradle to K Cabinet’s two-dozen members include parents, educators, nonprofit administrators, economists and representatives from local government agencies. Its co-chairs are Carolyn Smallwood, executive director of Way to Grow, and Peggy Flanagan, executive director of Children’s Defense Fund–Minnesota, a former Minneapolis School Board member and the mother of 16-month-old Siobhan, her first child.

“If someone like myself who has opportunities and access feels overwhelmed as a new parent, I can only imagine what that’s like for a parent who doesn’t necessarily have the resources that they need,” Flanagan said. 

Developing a strategy
Hodges is taking a cue from her predecessor, modeling the coordinated approach to early-childhood interventions in part on the Blueprint for Action, a community-based strategy for preventing youth violence that was developed under former Mayor R.T. Rybak. Implementation of that plan coincided with a drop in juvenile-related violent crime and gun incidents.

She also cited Heading Home Hennepin, a city-county collaboration on ending homelessness, as an inspiration for Cradle to K.

Minneapolis Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant said Hodges’ interest in early childhood was already changing her department, where various efforts to work with at-risk mothers and children are being aligned into a cohesive strategy.

“We’ve seen the power of creating a plan,” Musicant, a member of the Cradle to K Cabinet, said.

A mix of city funds and federal grant dollars supports the department’s work with women and families. In-home visits with teen mothers, programs to reduce lead poisoning and early developmental screening for Minneapolis kids all aim to promote children’s health.

Said Musicant: “Over the last few months pulling together all these efforts and saying, where are there gaps or where could we do more? Where could we get a really high return if we only expanded this program or filled in this gap?”

Lasting impacts

Hodges acknowledged that Cradle to K would require a significant city investment, but until the cabinet develops a more detailed plan it’s unclear exactly what the size of that investment might be or how it will be funded.

The high-quality childcare shown to benefit low-income children — the kind that involves a lot of interaction with trained adults — isn’t cheap. And Musicant said the cost of in-home visits with pregnant and parenting Minneapolis families, another potential Cradle to K component, costs on average $5,000 per family per year.

But Cradle to K Cabinet member Aaron Sojourner, an economist and assistant professor at the Carlson School of Management, said there’s strong evidence those investments pay off later. In particular, high-quality early childcare has “powerful, positive, persistent effects on the development of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds — from low-income families,” Sojourner said.

“What that means is these kids have a lot of potential that, in the absence of that rich experience, is not developed, and we as a society are missing out on that,” he added.

Hodges’ pitch for Cradle to K cites Sojourner’s research, which reanalyzed the results of a program that targeted at-risk infants with a combination of in-home visits and free, high-quality childcare. He found it had a lasting impact for low-income children, narrowing the achievement gap between them and their peers into elementary and even high school.

A body of research shows early experiences shape the course of our lives, Sojourner added.

“Adult productivity, it turns out, has a lot to do with what happens before we’re adults,” he said.

Musicant said that’s why the health of Minneapolis’ children has a lot to do with the health of the city as a whole.

“I think it is the evidence that shows us, while human beings can always change and improve, so much of what we are working with is determined in those very first years,” she said. “If we can do even more than we’re doing now to help little ones throughout the city have a really good start, then we’re going to be better off.”