The fourth annual State of Babies Yearbook, released Tuesday by the Washington, D.C.-based organization Zero To Three, places New Jersey in the top 12 states in the nation for infants and toddlers, but also offers evidence the Garden State should continue to make improvements for its youngest residents.

The rankings in the study are classified by the letters G-R-O-W: getting started, reaching forward, improving outcomes, or working effectively. In two categories, for having strong families and positive early learning experiences, New Jersey was rated "working effectively," the top mark.

It's the best showing the state has yet had in the relatively short history of the Zero To Three report, according to Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

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That does not mean, she said, that there isn't still work to be done.

Zalkind reports a "significant" equity issue remains in the Garden State, with about a third (32%) of Black and Hispanic babies being raised in poverty, compared to only 6% of whites.

"Even though New Jersey has done very well this year and we're actually ahead of most of the rest of the country, the disparity of outcomes between children of color and white children are still there," Zalkind said.

Child care prices are becoming prohibitive

Zero to three, while being the name of the group that crunched the numbers, also represents a critical period in a person's life, even pre-natally, Zalkind said, and not only sets a child up for older childhood and eventual adulthood, but even just ages 4 and 5.

That has Zalkind worried about the skyrocketing costs of child care in New Jersey, and what those mean for skills and experiences babies may learn outside the home.

"We are very concerned about the availability of early education opportunities for infants and toddlers," she said. "For babies, those early education opportunities are found primarily in child care."

Zalkind credits Gov. Phil Murphy's administration for much of the progress the state has made in recent years in early childhood development.

"We were one of the first states to extend Medicaid coverage to women 12 months after giving birth, and last year we became the second state to enact a universal home visiting law," she said.

Medicaid expansion, doulas, and foster care reform

The latter of those two developments has shined a spotlight on the profession of doulas in the Garden State. Zalkind said New Jersey is also making strides to cover all children via Medicaid.

And she singled out First Lady Tammy Murphy's Nurture NJ program for making a "huge difference" in combating Black infant mortality and maternal morbidity.

The foster system in the state is another area to watch closely, Zalkind said.

"Young children tend to be among the highest percentage of children entering placement, and I think the Department of Children and Families is doing some interesting work there to make sure that families are supported more effectively," she said.

In the third category in the State of Babies Yearbook in which New Jersey did not earn a top ranking, that of good health, the state was classified as "improving outcomes," the second-highest tier.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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