If a social program with a strong research base helps at-risk parents and children -- and saves taxpayers money -- how can we make it as efficient and effective as possible?
That's a question the South Carolina legislature will be addressing this year.
I saw many changes in our armed forces during my 33 years of service in the Navy and in the leadership of the Federal Maritime Commission under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. But one constant I observed was the need to make information and voluntary counseling available to military families with young children.
Every military family that is expecting a baby or already has young children has access to the New Parent Support Program. One of the key components is voluntary home visiting, which matches parents with trained professionals, often a nurse or social worker, who provide information and support during pregnancy and throughout a child's early years.
Through this program, home visitors answer questions and provide advice about child development, breastfeeding, sleeping, nutrition and behavior management. They also provide a wealth of information on community resources and activities.
Well-documented research on a variety of state-based home visiting programs has shown that mothers who volunteer to participate in effective home visiting programs are more likely to deliver healthy babies, and their children are less likely to suffer abuse and neglect. Children of mothers who receive voluntary home visiting services are also more likely to do well in school and less likely to become involved with the criminal justice system. Because of benefits such as these, the highest quality home visiting programs save taxpayers up to $5.70 for every dollar invested, according to a study by the RAND Corp.
In an effort to tackle the challenges faced by at-risk families, leaders of both political parties are working together in many states to implement voluntary home visiting programs that offer civilian services similar to the military's. In South Carolina, voluntary home visiting programs, such as Parents as Teachers and Nurse-Family Partnership, help some families with the challenges they face and set them on a path toward healthier, more productive lives. These programs are particularly important in this state, where 32 percent of children five and younger live in poverty and 40 percent of all cases of abuse and neglect occur among children ages four and younger, according to the most recent figures from Kids Count.
The next critical step for South Carolina is to ensure that its voluntary home visiting programs are administered effectively. State Rep. Rita Allison has introduced legislation (H. 4317) that would set standards for state-funded voluntary home visiting programs, providing better outcomes for both the families served and the taxpayers of South Carolina. It also would provide lawmakers with essential information about how state home visiting programs are performing, ensure that state funds are spent in the most effective manner and document the return on the taxpayers' investment.
Properly delivered home visiting programs are an excellent example of effective, bipartisan public policy in difficult economic times. These programs are based on rigorous research that shows they deliver results. They help at-risk families help themselves. And they provide taxpayers with a substantial return on investment by saving money in the future.
Voluntary home visiting works for thousands of military families, and Rep. Allison's bill will make it work more effectively for South Carolina's civilian families as well. It deserves the support of every elected official who cares about South Carolina's future.
Carey served as vice chairman of the U. S. Federal Maritime Commission under President Ronald Reagan and chairman under President George H.W. Bush.