The first few years of a child’s life are critically important to growth and development, and New Jersey’s youngest residents are poorer and face greater challenges than older children, particularly if they are members of a minority race, a new report shows.
The first ever Babies Count report from Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which produces annual Kids Count reports, indicates that 57 percent of children under age 3 in the state are either Hispanic, black, Asian or multiracial and some of these groups are more vulnerable than older children to health and safety problems. The goals of the report, released today, are to highlight data on New Jersey’s 310,000 infants and toddlers, who are often lost among figures describing general child statistics, and inform public officials so they can address these issues.
“Our babies are just starting out in life and already have the odds stacked against them,” said Cecilia Zalkind, ACNJ’s president and CEO. “By targeting this age group, policymakers and state leaders have an opportunity to change the trajectory and lead babies on the pathway to a healthy and productive future.”
With so many outcomes often tied to income, it is troubling that infants and toddlers are more likely to live in relative poverty than the state as a whole. Some 35 percent of the youngest children live in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or roughly $49,000, while just a quarter of all New Jerseyans have low incomes.
“From the time in their mother’s womb through their early years and beyond, we know that living in poverty impacts every aspect of a child’s life,” Zalkind said. “This is an incredible time of growth for babies, but the data shows that the critical supports needed to help families with young children are difficult to access or in short supply.”
Priced out of licensed child care centers
A major problem that low-income families face is finding affordable child care for their infants and toddlers. New Jersey’s child care subsidies cover a weekly rate of $167 per infant and $165 per toddler for qualifying low-income working families. But at that low rate, only 12 percent of licensed child care centers had prices that met the subsidy rate for infant care and 19 percent for center-based toddler care.
“The subsidy reimbursement rate for licensed child care providers is especially low for babies 17 months and younger because of the higher costs for providing care,” according to the report.
It can be tough for even families with higher incomes to find good care for young children. Fewer than half of the state’s 4,025 child care centers are licensed to serve infants and toddlers. Almost 70 percent of children under age 3 — some 190,000 — had working mothers, leading to a shortage of center-based care for this age group, according to the report.
Having good child care available is particularly important for children living in single-parent households. Fully a third of infants and toddlers, or nearly 90,000, are living with just one parent. For close to 14,000 children under age 3, a grandparent is the primary caregiver.
New Jersey’s youngest children are more diverse than the state as a whole. Just 43 percent are non-Hispanic white, compared to 58 percent of adults, and 41 percent were born to women who immigrated to the United States. African-American children, who comprise 14 percent of all infants and toddlers, can face additional challenges.
Late prenatal care for children born to black mothers
“Babies born to black mothers are more likely to receive late prenatal care, be born with a low birthweight or die before their first birthday than the state average,” Zalkind said. “What is most startling is that even though a mother’s educational level improves outcomes for their children, the infant mortality rate remains alarmingly high for babies born to black mothers whether she has a college degree or a high school diploma.”
Additionally, black children are overrepresented in the state’s child protection system, comprising some 36 percent of all children under the supervision of the state’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency.
Regardless of race, infants and toddlers are also more likely to be victims of abuse and neglect than children as a whole, according to the report. They make up 26 percent of the state’s total out-of-home foster care population and 10 of the 17 children who died in 2016 due to abuse or neglect were under age 3.
Participation in home visitation programs, particularly for at-risk families, has been proven to help new parents build healthy environments for their young children. But little more than 7,000 families benefitted from these programs offered through the state Department of Children and Families last year, according to the report. Programs are available in every county.
Another underutilized state program is paid family leave. New Jersey is one of only four states with paid family leave, but fewer than 27,000 employees filed claims to receive paid time off to spend time with a newborn or adopted child in 2016. The law gives workers at companies with at least 50 employees six weeks off at up to two-thirds of their pay to a maximum of $633 a week. Advocates cite several reasons why relatively few new parents use the leave, including that they don’t know about it, the weekly benefit is not great enough, and they fear they will lose their jobs if they take paid leave.
Some good news
Lawmakers are moving to fix those issues. A-3975/S-2528, currently moving through both houses of the Legislature, would double the amount of time a person could take off, increase the maximum weekly benefit by almost 90 percent, expand eligibility for workers at smaller businesses and provide some job protection. It would also spend $1.2 million to increase awareness of the program.
There is some good news in the report: