Following Rolnick’s rule: Investing in low-income parenting teens brings high returns


When you work with young moms and pregnant teens and you’ve got good news, you invite Art Rolnick to the celebration. And he’ll applaud your efforts.
That’s what happened Wednesday as the Minnesota Visiting Nurse Agency announced results of a study that showed their years of attending to low-income pregnant and parenting teenagers in their homes are paying off.
The study, conducted by Wilder Research and funded by the City of Minneapolis, found that teenagers in the MVNA’s Minneapolis Teen Parent Program were more likely than teens not in the program to carry their babies to full term and to deliver healthy birth weight babies.

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Here’s the skinny. There were 861 teen births in Minneapolis between Jan. 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009.
Of those, MVNA’s public health nurses worked with 526 pregnant and parenting teens, the two largest ethnic groups being 43 percent African-American and 27 percent Hispanic. Twenty-seven percent were foreign-born and 83 percent were first-time mothers. Half the teens were 18 or 19, with some as young as 13. 
And of those:

  • 95 percent had babies with a healthy birth weight compared to 90 percent of teens not in the program;
  • 95 percent of teens carried babies to full-term compared to 89 percent of teens not in the program.

Benefits for generations
But there’s more to the teen program begun in 2001. In describing the non-profit agency’s successful approach, which includes parenting advice and nutritional information, Mary Ann Blade, its CEO, said the program offers basic baby stuff such as highchairs, cribs and educational toys, as well as referrals to other community organizations that will help support these young moms.

Art RolnickArt Rolnick

“If they’re successful in reaching their goals, two generations will benefit,” said Wilder researcher Richard Chase. Teen moms will complete high school and develop parenting skills and homes in which children can thrive and get off to a good start, he said. The study of the program continues for a second year.

Going into the homes of pregnant teens and teen moms, nurses teach them how to stay healthy during pregnancy and how to care for and bond with their children, to feed their bodies as well as to stimulate their brains.
Natasha Solvieff, an MVNA public health nurse I met, said teaching young moms how to interact with their children and stimulate their brain development means that years from now these children will be school-ready.
Encouraging these young moms to stay in school is another strong element of the program.
“The return is enormous,” said Rolnick, senior vice president and director of research for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, in praising efforts like those of the MVNA, and who for years has argued: it makes economic sense to put money into prenatal and early childhood programs.
Only more recently Rolnick has turned up the heat, suggesting a $2 billion endowment for early life programs for the poor would be a wise state investment into perpetuity, a way of producing healthy, well-educated children living in more stable families and in turn growing into educated, economically productive adults.
‘High-return children’
We can talk about new taxes or lottery money or whatever to pay for a stadium for the Vikings, said Rolnick, a long-time advocate with Rob Grunewald, associate economist at the Federal Reserve and who is also a MVNA board member, of efforts that get children off to a healthy life start. But, “Where is the public figure saying we need that kind of money for early childhood?”
One billion dollars pays for two stadiums, but we’re talking about children here, and their future and the state’s, Rolnick said.
“We need to make the same pitch even harder for early childhood,” Rolnick said. “We have to be the squeaky wheel,” he said, adding that effective early childhood programs turn “high-risk children” into “high-return children.”
In this wealthy, education-oriented state there is “no excuse” for not finding a way to fund such an effort, Rolnick said.