A Policy Geek’s Perspectives on Early Childhood, Health and Beyond


The Bell Policy Center is honored and excited to be part of the Ascend at the Aspen Institute Network and, as part of our participation, I was particularly fortunate to attend the recent Early Childhood, Health and Beyond forum in Aspen, Colorado.  The conference was designed to learn from parent and practitioner voices, examine research, and explore how early childhood and health policies affect two-generation approaches to reduce poverty.

Like the Network itself, the forum featured diverse viewpoints and voices.  There were folks from organizations that provide direct services to low-income families; academic experts in health, early childhood and evaluation; philanthropists; senior staff from state agencies – and even a couple of policy geeks like me.

Open communication was the order of the day, with an emphasis on collaborating across disciplines and exploring ideas to help entire families succeed. Taking a broad-based, holistic approach to poverty reduction resulted in a rich discussion and several “a-ha” moments for me. I took home a number of practical ideas that can enhance what the Bell Policy Center is already doing in Colorado:

  • The importance of engaging parents: The concept of horizontal engagement, where parents help each other, share insights, and learn from one another how best to help their children and families advance to self-sufficiency, was a major theme throughout.  We see the value of this engagement in our own policy work.  Our efforts work best when policies are informed by and based on the direct experiences of the families the policies are intended to help.
  • Consider possibilities created by scientific research on brain development:  Learning firsthand from one of the researchers directly involved in many of the studies brought home the implications for policies and programs to help families.  As Mike Laracy of the Annie Casey Foundation pointed out, “Brain research has dramatically changed the game relative to helping kids and has gotten the attention of policy-makers.”  We emphasized the importance of brain development in young children last session when we advocated for several bills to improve the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program (CCCAP), and policy makers responded positively to this message.  .
  • The toxic effects of stress on the behavior of children and parents: Because early childhood and parenting are among the primary times in a person’s life when brain changes take place, combating the effects of “toxic stress” in parents and young children at the same time holds the possibility of making significant changes in the lives of low-income families.  The meeting’s discussions around research helped me see the far-ranging nature of what could be done to improve outcomes for all children, but particularly those who are low-income.

We also focused on policy ideas put forth by Ascend to advance two- generation approaches. Ascend’s policy agenda focuses on systems change at the local, state, tribal and federal levels.  While the list of ideas was directed mostly at federal initiatives, it was easy to see how states, tribes, and local governments could apply many of them to improve their own systems. We’re thrilled to be a key part of the coalition this session that successfully passed bills to expand access to quality child care, address the cliff effect in CCCAP and expand access to Colorado’s child care tax credit.  The policies embodied in these bills and our advocacy for them clearly included a two-generation approach.

Some of the feedback around communicating a policy agenda applied to the work of many “policy geeks” in the room:  paint a vivid picture of the problems facing families and use strong language and make bold recommendations to create a greater sense of urgency among policy-makers.  Wanda Walker from the Jeremiah Program in Milwaukee captured the sentiment best when she said she wanted legislators who read this report “to lose sleep over these problems” and feel they need to do something about them right away. Many of the ideas are directly applicable to our work with policy-makers in Colorado, such as:

  • Include a focus on education and employment training in home-visiting programs.
  • Improve cross-system collaboration between human services agencies and higher education institutions.   
  • Explore how Colorado’s postsecondary institutions can better meet their adult students’ need for quality child care and early learning programs for their children and how this will improve the parents’ educational outcomes.

Overall, the conference was a valuable learning experience that provided me with insights that can be applied to the Bell Policy Center’s work on two-generation policies.  But even more important, it connected me to the broad network of practitioners, researchers, and advocates that the Bell can draw on for inspiration and ideas in the future.