Families influence their children’s health in two ways that are amenable to public policy— through their financial and other investments in children, and through the quality of care that they provide. In general, children who receive more resources or better parenting are healthier than those who don’t. Public policies, therefore, might improve children’s health either by giving families more resources or by helping parents provide better care.
When it comes to financial resources, write Lawrence Berger and Sarah Font, the research is straightforward—programs that add to disadvantaged families’ incomes, whether in cash or in kind, can indeed improve their children’s health. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, has been linked to higher birth weights and greater cognitive achievement.
When it comes to programs that target quality of care, however, the picture is more complex. At the low end of the spectrum, poor parenting shades into neglect or abuse, which can seriously harm children’s health and development. Thus we might expect that the child protective services system, which has the power to intervene and protect children in such cases, could also improve children’s health in the long run. But Berger and Font find that the system’s ability to affect children’s health is limited, largely because it becomes involved in children’s lives only after damage has already occurred.
Other programs, however, have the potential to improve parenting, reduce maltreatment, and thus enhance children’s health and development. Home visiting programs show particular promise, as do large-scale, community-level primary prevention programs.