Baby Bonds Seed Hope for the Future   

Interview with Connecticut State Senator Cathy Osten | March 20, 2024

Connecticut State Senator Cathy Osten (center left) and Connecticut State Treasurer Erick Russell (left) discuss Baby Bonds with community members at a meeting in Norwich, CT, in April 2023. Photo: Office of State Treasurer Erick Russell

Baby Bonds are an increasingly popular government policy in which every child born into poverty receives a publicly funded trust account at birth, providing them with “start-up capital” to pursue fulfilling, productive, prosperous, and self-directed lives. Follow our Baby Blogs series to learn about the vision, politics, and people behind Baby Bonds and their transformative impact on the lives of young people, their families, and communities. 

In this installment of Baby Blogs, we spoke with Connecticut State Senator Cathy Osten about her belief in Baby Bonds, how she sees the impact in her home state of Connecticut, and guidance for other states seeking to implement a policy like Baby Bonds.

When did you first hear about Baby Bonds, and what was your reaction to it?

CO: Former Connecticut State Treasurer Shawn Wooden came to Representative Toni Walker and I as co-chairs of Appropriations to talk about a possible funding mechanism for a new policy that became known as Baby Bonds. Baby Bonds is a way to change the generational trajectory of certain families that come from a lower socioeconomic status and allow them to break the path that their family is on—providing them some opportunities that they might not otherwise have.

What was interesting to you about that proposal?

CO: I liked the proposal because it wasn’t just about race—although race is a component of it, it was truly about socioeconomic status. It wasn’t just about what school you can go to, but about if you can go to and afford school at all. Often, even if you have a child that has a great mind or a lot of potential, they may not be able to take advantage of that potential because they don’t have the financial capacity to do so. Baby Bonds is a way to provide people the capacity to make a change for their children. You always want your children to do better than you did and to have a sustainable future.

How do you think Baby Bonds could benefit the communities you represent in rural eastern Connecticut?

CO: Eastern Connecticut is a very poor section of the state. A lot of people don’t know that. Many don’t have public transportation or the infrastructure for water and sewer.

Our neighbors range across the spectrum. Those that are white, those that are Black, those that are Hispanic, those that are Indigenous. It was an area very much supported by the mills and once we lost the mills those good paying jobs went away. Many people fell into jobs that did not provide a living wage and they fell into the service industry which did not give them the capacity to plan for the future. No matter how many times people would try to get ahead, they always were dealing with that next life crisis. Your car needs to be fixed or you had somebody get sick or you were dealing with elderly parents or you had a new baby. All of the things that some people think are just normal, but you lose $200 in a week for something unexpected and it can take you six months to make it up.

It can be hard to deal with the day-to-day if you have no hope beyond the day-to-day. Baby Bonds gives people an opportunity to think about the future—think about your child’s future. Then you can think about things differently. 

What intrigued me about Baby Bonds was that it gives people an opportunity to move forward in a life altering way. The capacity to afford that next step is often beyond a family’s immediate resources.

What about your upbringing and childhood contributed to your interest in Baby Bonds?

CO: I come from a large Irish Catholic family. I’m the oldest of 7 and have 40 first cousins. My parents had a family restaurant in a bowling alley. We always had plenty of food and we always had a place to live, but the additional expenses of all of us having to wear glasses, get braces—those are all large expenses that added up. When I graduated high school I decided to go into the Army because the opportunity for me to go into college was not something that my family could support. 

What’s important about Baby Bonds is that it’s not just about education. It’s about employment, entrepreneurship, and economically giving people a leg up. Many young people have really great ideas that just need a little bit of capital. This allows them to institute those great ideas and gives them an opportunity to move ahead.

Talk about the policymaking process that led to Baby Bonds.

CO: I chair the Appropriations Committee and the original thought process was that we would use bonded dollars to support Baby Bonds. I knew that we didn’t have a dollar in the appropriation side of the budget, and was trying to make sure that we had the capacity to support this long term, because what would have been the worst thing of all is to have this policy that was not supported for the future or would only work for a year or two. That wouldn’t create generational change. My goal was to make sure that we had a long-term plan to support.

We were always trying to figure out a way that would come out of the operational side of the budget. Whether it was through bond proceeds or other ways that came up after. Representative Walker and I are huge supporters of finding ways for young people to make a choice to go into college. We’ve come up with a debt-free community college mechanism. These are things that allow young people to make choices.

Truly, a Baby Bonds initiative was a dream of parents to be able to provide a resource for their children to not struggle as much as they had. And so that’s what I mostly remember with Representative Walker asking, “What can we really do? How can we do this? How can this be a reality moving forward?”

Talk about what was happening when the policy first passed, and how you felt when the Governor delayed implementation.

CO: I wasn’t really surprised. I could hear people saying, “How can we really afford this?” This administration was not a huge fan in the beginning. Every administration has their policies, and one of their strong policies was not to put as much into bonded indebtedness, even though Baby Bonds had great value and would make great change. They felt that this wasn’t going to be sustainable. 

I never take push back as a bad thing. I take it as now we have to find a way around this. What can we do to move this forward? How can we support something like this long term that will have a change in the trajectory of the lives of our next generation?

What were your early interactions with Treasurer Russell regarding Baby Bonds? 

CO: Treasurer Erick Russell came down to Norwich to talk about Baby Bonds to a large group of parents about what it would mean to their families and the possibilities for their children. You could see a sort of hope borne in their faces, which was really a game changer for them. They could see a strong possibility for their children. A couple of women were pregnant at the time, and I could see them saying to themselves, “Well, I hope I make it beyond July 1 [the date when newborns would first be eligible for Baby Bonds].

Talk a little about how the Treasurer and his team were able to identify additional funding mechanisms.

CO: I was pretty excited that we found a solution, because I was pushing for anything that we had to do. We had several million dollars in bond proceeds that were coming in, and I didn’t know if we could use those dollars to kickstart the program. Turns out that you’re not allowed to do that due to certain governing standards, and so we needed to find a place or a way to do it. I actually think that Baby Bonds had more support this year [2023], because there was a greater push by certain groups. I know Senator Marilyn Moore [Bridgeport] was very interested in this. It seemed to me that other constituencies were saying, “Hey, I thought [Baby Bonds] was going to happen and now you’re pulling the rug out from under my feet and I really am upset about it.” And so it seemed to me that people were really seeing a possibility of a change. It was apparent that the Governor was back in support.

How do you ensure that a policy with such a long-term time horizon remains funded and supported?

CO: It’s got to be more than just a piece of legislation, because any legislation can be overturned. We saw that happen at the Supreme Court with Roe v. Wade. A long-term policy that was monumental for women who wanted to make choices and decisions for their own bodies was overturned.

People need to stay in tune with the government and see what’s there. You hope that the next generation is going to see the value of it. Beyond seeing the value of it, you have to remember it’s there. It’s very easy to say we’re not voting on this this year, and we’re going to vote on 100 other bills. Why do I care about that when the bill is already there? We care about it because you have to make sure that it’s funded. If it’s not funded, it really doesn’t matter. Right now we have a funding stream that’s working. We need to make sure that we continue with that funding stream so that it stays working and isn’t used for other things. 

There’s always somebody else that thinks funding could be better used in another way. That’s something that I think is important for people to remember. If you don’t pay attention to a policy that you support it’s very easy for it to get chipped away and not be as effective as you planned it to be.

We have an abysmal voting record in a lot of the poor communities in our state and in our country, and these are changes that were made to help exactly those people out. We want to make sure that they still have the opportunity to be helped. They have to be reminded to vote in their best interest.

What advice do you have for your colleagues in other parts of the country who are considering Baby Bonds?

CO: I would give them hope. This can work. Baby Bonds can actually make change in their communities. But they should not forget those who are still struggling today. You’re not just saying, “In 18 years we’re going to do something for our respective communities.” You want to be able to say this is a long-term change that we’re implementing, and we’re also working on other issues that will help your family out today.

I don’t think you can ever do anything in a silo. By bringing in other resources it helps you deal with some of those issues, like debt-free community college and affordable childcare.

In the end, we’ve already had our first Baby Bonds baby born and it’s exciting!

Senator Cathy Osten was first elected in November 2012 and is now serving her fifth term representing the residents of the 19th state Senatorial District in eastern Connecticut. She serves as co-chair of the Appropriations Committee. In recent years Cathy has helped write and pass such important legislation as increasing Connecticut’s minimum wage, a sex offender notification bill, the creation of senior safety zones task force, and creating a state version of “Erin’s Law,” which requires that children be educated in schools on sexual abuse in a child-friendly manner, for the purpose of informing and protecting them from sexual abuse.

If you missed previous installments of our Baby Blogs series, read them here

Learn more about Baby Bonds in Connecticut.

To share feedback on this blog, or for questions about Baby Bonds, email David Radcliffe at [email protected].

To learn more, explore our Baby Bonds resources.