“As far as health condition and medical care are concerned, [homeless] children are prisoners of their socioeconomic and insurance status.”- America’s Youngest Outcasts: State Report Card on Child Homelessness, The National Center on Family Homelessness
A recent report (www.homelesschildrenamerica.org) by the Newton-based National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH) begins with a call to action: “It is unacceptable for one child in the United States to be homeless for even one day.”
Still, in the richest country in the world, 1.5 million children go to bed with out a home each year. Just as alarming, NCFH found that 1 in 50 American children experience homelessness at some point in their life.
Dr. Ellen L. Bassuk, NCFH president, states that we need to provide “equal opportunities for all American children to grow and thrive in the safety and security of their own homes.”
For Massachusetts, there is some good news: according to the report, the Commonwealth ranks 8th in the nation for well-being of homeless children. This ranking is based on the number of homeless children and how these children fare in various domains (food security, health, and education), the risk of children becoming homeless, and the state’s planning and policy efforts.
But while we can take some comfort in our overall ranking, the news on the health front is troubling – Massachusetts ranks 43 out of 50 for the percentage of homeless children reporting moderate to severe health conditions. Compared to middle-income families, homeless families in Massachusetts suffer proportionately more moderate to severe health problems, as well as more asthma, traumatic stress, and emotional disturbances.
Health insurance alone isn’t enough to guarantee good health. If that were the case, children in our state would be by far the healthiest in the nation (only 1.2% of our children do not have health coverage).
Good health depends on more than an insurance card.
If the NCFH report is a call to action for us to protect the health of our most vulnerable children, we should closely examine the impact that budget cuts will have on low income and homeless kids.
While no one can deny that these are unprecedented economic times and that difficult funding decisions need to be made, there are specific child health programs that must be held harmless.
The Healthy Start Program provides prenatal and limited post-partum coverage for low-income women not eligible for MassHealth. The program serves close to 4,500 pregnant women each year.
Healthy Start covers prenatal visits (including labs and radiology), outpatient mental health services, prescription drugs, medical nutrition therapy, durable medical equipment, amniocentesis, and postpartum care up to 60 days after delivery. Timely prenatal care is important to a healthy pregnancy and has been shown to produce better birth outcomes.
Early Intervention (EI) is the most comprehensive, family-centered program in the Commonwealth dedicated to serving children birth to three with developmental delays. The program serves more than 30,000 children and families in Massachusetts each year. EI is a range of services available to families of children up to three years old who have developmental delays or whose development is at risk because of particular birth or environmental factors. Services are based on the needs of the child and family, and can include home visits, child groups, parent groups, and services of specialty providers.
Current economic factors indicate that it would be irresponsible and short-sighted to cut Healthy Start and EI at a time when the demand for their services is likely to only increase.
The idea that children are our most valuable resource cannot be disregarded as simply another cliché – we must live this value by working to ensure that, in the words of Dr. Bassuk, there exists “equal opportunities for all American children to grow and thrive.”
Matt Noyes and Christine Keeves