Enriching poor kids

By Michelle Chen May 06, 2009

It pays to start early when trying to set kids on the right path. Comprehensive preschool programs have been linked to better outcomes for children later in life, with lower rates of criminal justice involvement and higher earnings. Giving a boost to 4-year olds is also relatively politically viable, even in a faltering economy. According to an analysis by Pew Center on the States, most governors have have moved to protect or raise state spending on early education programs. The federal stimulus package also directs more education money into early childhood programs. There’s an economic component in these initiatives as well: supporting families with children helps parents hold down jobs in a faltering economy. But another study released by the Brookings Institution notes some intriguing disparities in government spending. Researchers found that programs for infants and toddlers tend to focus on keeping them healthy, not necessarily enriching them academically. "Federal spending on infants and toddlers is more concentrated in health and nutrition than federal spending on all children," they write, and early care and education programs took up just 7 percent of federal spending for infants and toddlers, compared to 17 percent for all children. The study doesn’t set an optimal level of spending–and clearly, different age groups have unique needs. But the data calls into question why educational resources tend to be back-loaded toward later years, when we know that the first few years of life are extremely influential. Various studies reveal that stress and poverty can undercut infant and toddler development, by impacting a child’s hormonal balance, for instance, or impeding language acquisition. Conversely, social stimulation and bonding in early childhood help cultivate essential cognitive skills. Young children of color, not surprisingly, are most vulnerable to the barriers intrinsic to growing up in a poor, distressed home. While poverty disproportionately impacts children in general, it is more prevalent among Black (34 percent), Latino (29 percent) and Asian children (12 percent) compared to white children (10 percent). Poverty rates are especially high for Black and Latino households headed by single women. Though the Brookings report is intended just as a "baseline" analysis, the findings suggest that education funding patterns don’t truly encompass the kinds of learning that begin, ideally, from birth. Meanwhile, other government programs tend to intervene in punitive ways, after families begin to manifest the fallout of public disinvestment. Poverty and other stressors drive households into the child welfare and welfare-to-work systems–two bureaucracies that typically sustain families at the cusp of survival without offering real stability. It’s too early to tell if the Obama administration will seek a sea change in the way the government invests in the early promise of children, but the current welfare regime seems to set the same dismal threshold of support for babies and adults alike: meting out just enough to scrape by, but far less than what many families need to realize their full potential in their work, education and community life. Image: Baltimore Housing