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Underinvesting in Children

Cuts targeting poverty-fighting programs will come back to haunt us.

In case you missed it, there's new findings out that confirm what we've known for eons: investing early in children pays off in the long run. The analysis was of 1,000 low-income, mostly black kids from Chicago, who attended preschools where they and their families could receive early intervention services. These students were tracked for up to 25 years. What the study found was that those who attended pre-school wound up with higher high school graduation rates, more went to college, got better jobs, experienced less drug abuse and had fewer run-ins with the law, along with a long list of other individual and social benefits.

Despite that, spending on programs for children -- whether in human services, health or education -- is on the federal chopping block right now. Head Start, a program that provides comprehensive education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families, is facing a proposed $1 billion cut that would eliminate slots for 127,000 children. Nearly half of the two million families being served by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) are facing benefits cuts, and a $5 billion infusion from the stimulus -- used largely to subsidize jobs for TANF recipients -- was not extended, cutting off funds for 250,000 jobs. Earlier in the year the House voted to cut almost $750 million from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which would mean a reduction of more than 300,000 in the number of women and kids now being helped by the program. The House also passed a plan this year to convert the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to a block grant and cut the program by almost 20 percent.

Politicians aren't generally known for their ability to think out the consequences of short-term, panic-inspired or ideologically driven cuts. Sadly, it doesn't look like the denizens of Capitol Hill will start thinking it out any time soon, either. Failure to invest now in children, however, will come back to haunt us.

I had occasion recently to sit down with Bill Bentley, president and CEO of Voices for America's Children, a national coalition of service organizations and children and family advocacy groups. We talked about the potential impacts of proposed spending cuts, and how they could play out over the next five to 15 years. "It's incredibly hypocritical to talk about the problem of leaving our children saddled with debt," says Bentley, "even as they talk about such huge underinvestment in the future of our children."

Bentley and his group are working to push back against the cuts, the proposals for balanced budget amendments and spending caps, which are all currently aimed at domestic spending. "You can't balance the budget when you're only considering the 12 percent of spending on the domestic side," says Bentley.

What's interesting about Bentley is that he doesn't only blame short-sighted or ideologically driven lawmakers for the fix we're in right now, but says a fair enough share of the blame should be placed on advocates. According to Bentley, advocates aren't arguing their case to lawmakers. They should be saying, "If we pay a little now to give kids the social, health and education boost they need, we'll reap huge savings down the road." More than that, there is obviously a huge upside to helping build a generation of adults who make stable contributions to their communities and the economy.

It's a big job to make that case, Bentley says. "We must do a better job of educating the public. Once the public sees what the impact of these cuts is, they understand." Bentley hopes to rekindle "a sense of shared sacrifice" that will lead to the sort of widespread support necessary to getting millions of poor families and children the assistance they need now in order to help achieve a better future.

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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