March 8, 2019

Supporting Teen Moms; Vaccine Exemptions; New Tax Reforms

Plus, how a national report ranks the well-being of newborns in Arizona.

Arizona has room to grow when it comes to providing resources for its youngest residents, according to the "State of Babies Yearbook: 2019." The report looks at the well-being and development of infants up to three years old in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. The report ranked Arizona among the bottom 13 states in areas related to family stability and access to early childhood care. Arizona did show improvement when it came to the overall health of babies.

The Children's Action Alliance, a group that lobbies for childhood development initiatives at the Arizona Legislature, takes the report seriously. Kelley Murphy, director of early childhood policy, discussed its findings with Christopher Conover.

"Unfortunately, it's not a change from years past and isn't that surprising. We have seen some progress in certain areas, but we are certainly still lagging behind in several others," Murphy said. The report positively notes Arizona's home visitation system for infants and toddlers, which Murphy described as "robust."

The report finds the poverty rate for infants, at 28 percent, is slightly higher than the national average.

"There are a number of policies at the state level that we could implement that would help these families. Unfortunately, over the last several years, specifically during the recession, we cut a lot of those programs to families and many of them have not been restored," Murphy said.

You can read the entire "State of Babies Yearbook: 2019" here.

Many workplaces offer child care options for newborns and toddlers, including the Sunnyside Unified School District. But faculty and staff aren't the only ones taking advantage of those services. For decades, hundreds of students and families in the district have received much-needed support in and out of school from the Teenage Parent Program and Parents as Teachers.

For over 30 years, the program has helped about 900 student parents, including more than two dozen this year. Services are designed to help young parents finish high school. TAPP has an Infant Center at Sunnyside High School that provides day care for infants between 2 weeks and 12 months old. It can cost $15 per week. Monica Luna, who oversees the program, said many students get financial assistance through the Arizona Department of Economic Security or through scholarships.

"I think it's important that they pay something because they need to get used to the fact that once they're out of school and they need day care, they're going to have to pay on a regular basis," Luna said.

Four students are utilizing the Infant Center this year. Other services offered by TAPP include parenting classes for both male and female students and prenatal classes for expecting mothers. A case manager also helps them with additional resources they may need at home. TAPP is also focused on trying to reduce teen pregnancies within the district through sex education and workshops that teach adults how to discuss the topic with their children.

"This program is a necessity. We would like for conversations to take place from very young in the household. But obviously that doesn't happen because we have teenagers that become pregnant before they planned it," Luna said. "So, what do we do with that population? We help them to be successful. We all succeed if they succeed."

Another Sunnyside Unified School District program, Parents as Teachers, strives to help families in the district with children up to five years old. Services include two home visits a month where educators can go over parenting methods, promote literacy and help parents deal with stress.

"The core of the program is a home visitation program, because that's also where most learning takes place," program coordinator Joan Katz said.

Currently, more than 320 families are signed up for Parents as Teachers and the program has a waitlist. According to Katz, most of the families served are low income.

Both the Teenage Parent Program and Parents as Teachers rely on support from First Things First, a statewide organization that funds early education and programs for children. It receives most of its funding from a tax on tobacco sales. However, that revenue stream has shrunk in recent years as fewer people use tobacco products.

Amid a recent uptick in measles cases nationwide, Gov. Doug Ducey told reporters he would not sign any legislation that could increase the number of unvaccinated children in the state. Under state law, a student attending kindergarten through 12th grade can get exemptions for some vaccines if their parents submit a "Personal Exemption Form" from the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Kacey Ernst and Heidi Pottinger surveyed parents in Arizona about reasons they may seek exemptions. Both are with the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. They discussed their research with Christopher Conover.

"Some of the things we identified were that if you have social media accounts there's a lot of information online and it's presented in a way that sounds somewhat scientific, so it's very easy for people to be led into misconceptions about vaccines," Ernst said. According to Ernst, Scottsdale and Sedona have high rates of vaccine exemptions. "Overall, Arizona actually looks pretty good when you look at our immunization levels, but when you break it down into geographic clusters some of them are very alarmingly low," Ernst said.

Parents who chose to exempt their children from vaccines had misconceptions about how the immune system works, according to Pottinger. "There was a tendency to believe that immunity through natural infection was better than immunity through vaccination," Pottinger said.

When it comes to convincing skeptical families of the importance of vaccines, Pottinger said it's important to acknowledge they are doing what they believe is in their child's best interest. "Really, it's about showing them and telling them we're all in this together, and coming at it from a place of compassion," Pottinger said.

This year, federal tax reforms passed in 2018 take effect. The United Way of Tucson and Southern Arizona is one group helping some taxpayers navigate the changes. The group's financial stability program director Rae Pilarski discussed what some of its tax preparers have observed so far, as well as resources available to those who have not filed their returns yet. She said reforms have mostly had a positive effect, but some tax payers were caught off guard by smaller refunds.

"It seems to be primarily those who weren't aware that the tax reform actually impacted their withholding," Pilarski said. These tax filers unknowingly had their withholdings lowered due to changes to the guidelines employers use to calculate withholdings, according to Pilarski.

People earning up to $66,000 a year can get free help with their taxes through the United Way's Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program. Pilarski recommends people don't procrastinate filing their returns in the event they end up owing the government and need more time to pay or request an installment agreement to pay in increments.

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