By Mollyrose Schaffner, Policy Writer/Editor, ZERO TO THREE

Just as a home’s foundation is laid first, the groundwork for a child’s strong future is built in the first days, months, and years of life. For babies, a safe, stable, affordable home provides more than just shelter, it is the emotional and social center of family life. It is at home where parents nurture their children, who in turn have a secure space to play and grow. When this central family place becomes unstable, overcrowded, unaffordable, or threatened by unsafe neighborhood conditions, babies’ rapid brain development is put at risk, leaving them susceptible to long-term developmental and health problems. America’s babies and toddlers are no stranger to these conditions or even homelessness. While access to affordable, safe, and stable homes is foundational for a strong family, many families with young children in the United States scramble to find a place to call home.

Our recently released State of Babies Yearbook: 2019 gives a national and state-by-state picture of these conditions. Almost a quarter of the nation’s babies live in poverty, nearly half living in families struggling to make ends meet. Approximately 3 percent of babies experience housing instability, meaning they have moved three or more times since birth. This rate is perhaps lower than some may expect, but in three states more than 10 percent of babies have experienced such mobility. More alarming, the Yearbook found that, in most states, more than 1 in 10 babies is growing up in crowded conditions. These families are often forced to move in with relatives or friends because they cannot afford high rents on their own, but such “doubling up” compounds stress for the caregiver and child. Families of color face an even harsher reality. In fact, the Yearbook reports that infants and toddlers of color, in addition to living disproportionately in poor families, are more likely to live in neighborhoods their parents characterize as unsafe, and to experience housing instability in the way of crowded housing and frequent moves.

Building brains is like building a house—you need to start with a strong foundation. Between the ages of zero to three, children’s brain development unfolds at an unparalleled pace, forming one million new neural connections every second that are the foundation on which all later learning is built. This brain architecture in young children is molded by the quality of their earliest relationships and experiences, which in turn are affected by their surroundings. Infants and toddlers are acutely sensitive to challenges and changes in their environments, making a safe and stable home a critical piece of the puzzle.

The psychological effects of security are tremendous. Stable homes support family well-being and lower stress levels, setting the stage for nurturing parenting that reinforces healthy child development.

Unfortunately, family economic status is often a determining factor in children’s experiences, with too many families lacking access to social and economic resources and facing inequitable, persistent hardships. These uncertain conditions can create chronic, unrelenting stress that undermines the developing brain. A growing number of families with young children, particularly those with low and moderate incomes, cannot afford adequate housing despite working multiple jobs. Unable to stay afloat with rising housing costs, many are forced into unsafe and disruptive housing situations.

Such instability and hardship in the earliest years of life comes with the developmental price tag of negative long-term consequences for children’s well-being. The lack of a stable home creates greater risk of food insecurity and poor health outcomes, such as developmental delays, behavior problems, and difficulty maintaining a healthy weight. Children who experience homelessness are even more likely to suffer developmental delays and poor health. As with most traumatic experiences a child endures, longer periods of homelessness are associated with more negative outcomes.

Safeguarding access to safe, stable, affordable homes is a critical policy ingredient for healthy child development. This is a problem we can solve, with proven supports to help families get in and stay in safe homes. Housing assistance programs, such as housing vouchers, public housing, and the National Housing Trust Fund reduce the likelihood that families live in overcrowded housing, experience homelessness, or move frequently.

Yet, federal housing assistance falls far short of the need, and the number of households with children receiving rental assistance has declined over time. Only about one in four households with children who likely qualify for rental assistance will actually receive aid due to chronic under-funding. Increasing funds for housing assistance would provide a path to the stable homes and neighborhoods necessary for children to thrive. For instance, Housing Choice Vouchers reduce homelessness and lift people out of poverty, while giving families an opportunity to move to safer neighborhoods. These effects are linked to educational, developmental, and health benefits that can drastically improve children’s opportunities for success while also reducing costs in other public programs.

Housing – a place to call home – is beyond an issue of infrastructure. It is at the heart of healthy early development and well-being. The early childhood community is acutely aware of the synergy between safe, stable, affordable homes and strong physical and emotional development in children, with impacts lasting well beyond the early years. ZERO TO THREE is proud to join the more than 90 organizations that support the Opportunity Starts at Home Campaign in banding together to stand up for what families with young children need: a safe and stable home – one they can count on and, most importantly, afford.

Bringing to bear over 40 years of research-based expertise on infant and toddler development, ZERO TO THREE works to ensure all infants and toddlers benefit from the family and community connections critical to their well-being and healthy development. We translate the science of early childhood into resources, tools, and responsive policies for parents, professionals, and policymakers. Grounded in the science of early childhood development, ZERO TO THREE’s policy framework promotes supports for infants and toddlers’ development in three domains: Good Health, Strong Families, and Positive Early Learning Experiences.