For too many Kent County children, “Normal was Never Enough”

First Steps Kent, KConnect and Well Design are collaborating in a new campaign, “Normal was Never Enough.” The campaign brings attention to childhood disparities in Kent County, what is being done to eliminate them and policy changes to address root causes. The campaign states, “Together we can build a community where children are happy, healthy and living their best childhoods.”

“Normal was never enough,” says Annemarie Valdez, president and CEO of First Steps Kent. “Prior to the pandemic, we were already seeing families struggle, especially families living in poverty. So, we’re putting a focus on it now and making sure that we're directing support toward families and children. It's so important.”

When children face disparities and disadvantages, they are more likely to be food insecure, have health issues and lack school readiness.

“There are areas — like child care, like housing, like transportation — that are huge barriers for families that are facing income challenges and trying to get to work, trying to raise their families,” Valdez says.

According to the Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed (ALICE) in Michigan Report, 35% of all Kent County households struggle to pay for their basic needs — 10% live below poverty and 25% are workers with jobs that don’t pay enough to cover the cost of housing, food, child care, health care and other necessities. Sixty-two percent of Black households and 54% of Hispanic households are within this struggling sector.

“What we see from the business sector currently is that we don't have a workforce that is viable,” Valdez says. “So, intervening early, making sure that kids are prepared for school, that means they're prepared for life in the long run.” 

To date, the workgroup launching the campaign has considered several focus points 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 be born at a low birthweight, which can have long-term impact on a child’s health, development and learning. 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 kids thrive. They're able to catch up and be ready for kindergarten, ready for the milestones that they face as they reach their own full potential.”

While many consider Grand Rapids as a great place to live, economic opportunities and a high quality of life are not equitably available to Black and Latinx families. The pandemic has led to decreases in the availability of quality childcare — and these are also the families most impacted.

“Working families are not able to find child care or affordable child care,” Valdez says. “But we're seeing some policy changes happen, especially during this time, when we see stimulus dollars coming into our state — $1.4 billion came into Michigan through federal stimulus programs, specifically for child care. For the folks who need it, it will be there for them at an affordable cost.”

To further the campaign objectives, the Normal was Never Enough workgroup will gather stories from community and partner organizations to gain a better understanding of the root causes of disparities, local strategies that are effectively dismantling racial inequities, and policies that could create meaningful change.

“Our legislature and our governor are working together to make sure that we're supporting early childhood interventions, like child care and preschool,” Valdez says. “When you think about families and parents, what every parent wants for their kids is for them to be healthy, to thrive, to reach their own full potential, to be able to exist and earn a living.”

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