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Zeroing in on zero-to-three

Ross Thompson, PhD, talks about brain development. Photo by Leon Lawrence III

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Roy Charles Brooks' presidential initiative at NACo will focus on combating child poverty from ages zero to three

NACo’s new president, Roy Charles Brooks, Tarrant County, Texas commissioner, plans to make combating childhood poverty his initiative during his term, he told members of NACo’s Human Services and Education Steering Committee July 21.

“It’s time to address this devastating national problem,” Brooks said. More than one in five children live in poverty in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Poverty is not just a suburban, urban or rural problem,” Brooks noted. “One in five lives in poverty in a majority of our counties. You’ll find even in our most affluent areas there are pockets of poverty.”

Growing up in poverty is “an adverse experience that can impact children for the rest of their lives,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us to solve this problem.”

“The way to break general poverty is to start with children from ages zero to three,” he said. “This presidential initiative won’t be able to solve the problem, but it’s a start. We’ll move the needle the farthest with our children.” By focusing investments in early childhood development, he noted, counties can spend less funding “down the road.”

In addition to raising awareness about the issue, NACo’s efforts will include advocating for federal legislation, Brooks said. One way NACo members can help with the initiative is to “make the case,” by showing members of Congress what poverty looks like in their communities, he said. “It’s got to be personal. They’ve got to not only have the numbers. They have to hear the stories. You’ve got to be able to show adverse impacts.”

One audience member pointed out that there also needs to be an analysis of TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. “We need to look at how we help needy families,” they said. “In Ohio, it’s shifted toward Social Security Disability. They’re still in poverty using SSD as income.”

Members also heard about the Florida Children’s Council. Florida is the only state in the country with laws that allow county leaders and residents to create a special government entity that’s sole purpose is to invest in the well-being of children and families. The entity is first established by a County Commission through a local ordinance. Voters can then approve taxing authority for a Children’s Services Council through a countywide referendum. Find out more about the Council at their website:

Members of the committee also learned that poor dental health can often lead to truancy, school attendance issues and financial troubles for families.

The Oregon Community Foundation launched a massive effort several years ago to offer dental programs to kids in local schools, conference speaker Mark Mulvihill, superintendent of the InterMountain Education Service District in Oregon, told NACo members. The program includes everything from exams to sealants to tooth brush kits.

Dental health was featured in last month’s issue of American Journal of Public Health. Oral disease remains the most chronic condition in children and adults, Dr. Louis Sullivan, former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote.

By helping children with dental health, “you can get the kids to school, healthy and ready to learn,” Mulvihill said. “It’s our job to get these kids to the finish line.”

NACo members heard more about zero to three issues in the Healthy Counties Early Childhood Lunch Summit held July 22. The luncheon included a talk by Ross Thompson, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, who discussed brain development and Rob Grunewald, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, who talked about the return on investment when funding programs for children from prenatal on up.

Mecklenburg County N.C. Commissioner Trevor Fuller told the packed room how his county came to embrace zero to three initiatives. He said after a pair of Harvard economists ranked Charlotte, N.C. dead last out of 50 cities for economic mobility several years ago, that was incentive for the region to pull together to do something about it.

“The Harvard study mobilized everyone — why were we 50th on the list? And what are we going to do about it?” he said during the panel discussion.

A task force, made up of members from the county’s non-profit sector, as well as from the region’s business and education communities, studied the economic mobility problem and recommended a solution — universal pre-kindergarten as an answer, Fuller said.

The Charlotte Executive Leadership Council has decided to adopt the project and last fall announced $500,000 in financing to help figure out how to make it a reality. Fuller noted that a Department of Education Pay for Success grant for $300,000 has also been kicked in.

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