For too many Kent County kids, ‘normal was never enough’

First Steps Kent, KConnect and design well are collaborating on a new campaign, “Normal was never enough.” The campaign draws attention to child disparities in Kent County, what is being done to end them, and policy changes to address the root causes. The campaign states: “Together, we can build a community where children are happy, healthy and have their best childhood.

“Normal was never enough,” says Annemarie Valdez, President and CEO of First Steps Kent. “Before the pandemic, we were already seeing families struggling, especially families living in poverty. So we’re emphasizing that now and making sure that we’re directing support to families and children. It’s so important.

When children face disparities and disadvantages, they are more likely to suffer from food insecurity, have health problems and not be ready to go to school.

“There are areas – like childcare, like housing, like transportation – that are huge barriers for families who are struggling with income and trying to get to work, trying to get by. ‘raise their family,’” Valdez says.

According to Michigan Limited Assets, Limited Income, and Employees (ALICE) Report, 35% of all Kent County households struggle to meet their basic needs – 10% live below poverty and 25% are working people whose jobs do not pay enough to cover housing costs, food, child care, health care and other necessities. Sixty-two percent of black households and 54% of Hispanic households are part of this struggling sector.

“What we’re seeing right now in the corporate sector is that we don’t have a viable workforce,” Valdez says. “So intervening early, making sure kids are prepared for school, means they’re ready for life for the long haul.”

To date, the task force that launched the campaign has looked at several priority areas, including family wealth and income, early care and education, and healthy births. Black mothers are two to three times more likely than white mothers to die in childbirth or face serious complications. Black infants are more than twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday or to be born with low birth weight, which can have a long-term impact on health, development and learning of a child. Birth outcomes for Latinx mothers and babies are not as good as for their white counterparts.

“Another area is health care for young children,” Valdez says. “We know that healthy children thrive. They are able to catch up and be ready for kindergarten, ready for the milestones they face as they reach their full potential.

While many consider Grand Rapids a great place to live, economic opportunity and a high quality of life are not equally available to Black and Latina families. The pandemic has led to a decrease in the availability of quality childcare – and it’s also the families most affected.

“Working families aren’t able to find affordable child care or daycare,” Valdez says. “But we are seeing policy shifts, especially during this time, when we see stimulus dollars flowing into our state – $1.4 billion has come into Michigan through federal stimulus programs, especially for childcare. For people who need it, it will be there for them at an affordable price.

To advance the campaign’s goals, the Normal was Never Enough task force will gather stories from community and partner organizations to better understand the root causes of disparities, local strategies that effectively dismantle racial inequalities, and policies that could create a significant change.

“Our legislature and our governor are working together to make sure we support early childhood interventions, like child care and preschool,” Valdez said. “When you think of families and parents, what every parent wants for their children is for them to be healthy, to thrive, to reach their full potential, to be able to exist and make a living.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy of First Steps Kent

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