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One of the few issues on which politicians of both parties agree is the need for stronger families who are able to shepherd their children's early development and live healthy, self-sufficient lives. Yet, thousands of families in Utah and across the nation will lose out on an important opportunity unless Congress quickly acts to reauthorize a federal/state partnership called the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program.

MIECHV funds a range of voluntary, in-home support programs that help vulnerable families. Both Democrats and Republicans (including President George W. Bush) have long supported MIECHV because its programs meet an important need—providing a voluntary lifeline that instills parental responsibility and independence while boosting the early education and health of children.

Every parent has to face that moment when he or she realizes that babies don't come with an instruction manual. Most of us can turn to extended family for support, or draw on other sources of experience and knowledge about basic parenting skills.

Sadly, thousands of new families don't have those kinds of resources. It can be very difficult for them to know what's most critical to keeping families strong and laying the foundation for their children's success. MIECHV fills that gap by providing parent coaching and mentoring for families who are interested.

Upon request, MIECHV matches families in need with specially trained people from their own community, like nurses or parent educators, to help new parents learn the skills wanted and needed. These providers build close relationships with vulnerable families from the time a mother is pregnant through the first few years of the child's life. During this critical time, parents receive support and knowledge tailored to their specific needs.

Here in Utah, MIECHV programs as provided through one of the oldest and well-respected children's organizations in the state, the Children Service Society, help young teen parents raise themselves as they raise their young children. Others help parents learn skills to help their children in school. Still other programs help parents gain knowledge to get their children a healthy start with vital baby and toddler care.

Local communities choose the program focus that meets the most pressing unmet needs for at-risk families in their city. Federal MIECHV funding for home visiting made it possible for the state and social service organizations to serve 299 Utah families last year.

All the MIECHV programs are voluntary, closely tied to local communities, and customized to meet the needs of individual families. These qualities help explain why they have enjoyed such strong support from Democratic and Republicans lawmakers as well as business leaders.

Home visiting programs work and pay for themselves. Research shows that family education programs deliver a good return on investment for taxpayers by cutting health care costs, reducing the need for costly remedial education, and making families more self-sufficient. Studies have shown that children who have strong bonds with their parents have better lifelong emotional health and a lower risk of later problems, including alcoholism, eating disorders, heart disease and cancer.

Unfortunately, the future of MIECHV is in jeopardy. Congress has only ensured programs using these funds stay open through March 2015.

If Congress doesn't act swiftly to reauthorize MIECHV funding for the long-term, thousands of vitally important community-based home visiting programs will lose the stable funding needed to best serve the children and families in their communities. Recognizing that the future of our workforce and ultimately our nation depends on our success in giving disadvantaged children a good start in life, we urge Congress to reauthorize the MIECHV program.

Jay Francis is a member of United Way of Salt Lake's Board of Directors and executive vice president of corporate affairs and Miller Family Philanthropy. Paula Green Johnson is a member of United Way Worldwide's Women's Leadership Council and chair of United Way of Salt Lake's public policy committee.