Making the Right Choices for Children in Tough Economic Times

Last week a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that “the official child poverty rate, which is a conservative measure of economic hardship, increased 18 percent between 2000 and 2009.” Similarly, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of children facing food insecurity in 2009 skyrocketed to one-in-four. These facts are astounding, especially as the Children’s Defense Fund released a report that found “the U.S. spends almost two-and-half times as much per prisoner as per public school pupil.” Additionally,  The Pew Charitable Trusts also released a report that found right here in California (along with other states across the country) we cannot track the effectiveness of our local First Five Commissions because we haven’t been collecting the data we need to convince tax payers that these program s are worthwhile (and to match and access federal funds). Poor nutrition in young children has been linked to lower intelligence, behavioral issues, and lower educational achievement. In turn, these childhood issues have been linked to delinquency and worse in adolescents and adults.

What are the Savings?

Several studies by the RAND Institute have found that: 1) targeted early interventions benefit children and their families, and 2) government funds invested early in the lives of some children result in compensating decreases in government expenditures. Well-designed programs for children age 4 and younger can produce economic benefits ranging from $1.26 to $17 for each $1 spent on the programs. More locally, it has been estimated to cost approximately $60 per day or $22,000 per year to house an adolescent in the juvenile detention facility.

The Hard Choices

Ten years ago, there was a renewed interest in the influence of early childhood—especially the first three years of life—on health and development. Governors and legislators directed budgetary surpluses to interventions for young children.  New scientific studies revolutionized our understanding of the complex and dynamic ways in which both nature and nurture–genetics and the environment– shape the developing brain and the emotional, social, regulatory, moral, and intellectual capacities that emerge from early childhood.   Last year, for the first time, recognizing the importance of delivering high quality services from trained providers to this age group, the state even created a preschool mental health endorsement process for those with specialized training in working with infants and children. But now that the budgets are tight these are the programs being cut—and it’s the basics that are disappearing—kids don’t even have enough food.

In my work both as an attorney and psychologist, I hear stories daily, of the positive effects of early interventions. There is the mother who was brought here from abroad only to find that her husband already had an entire family. With a little the help she has mastered new parenting strategies, and is now back in school and supporting her kids. There is the proud single father who has gone from being homeless to finding a new home with his son. How might life be different for so many, and the financial costs on society significantly smaller, if we just intervene early and invest in kids in their early years ?

There are difficult choices to be made with our budget in a time of soaring deficits. But short-term-thinking — profit now and pay later strategies – got us into this financial mess. As we try to fix it, we must choose solutions that focus on longer-term, lasting results for our most pressing societal problems. We cannot sacrifice the well-being of our children at any cost. Children shouldn’t have to go hungry—and in the long run it costs us much more for prisons.

Here is a great organization working to end childhood hunger.  But also, get involved–and help our politicians invest in our future.