Early Investments Can Give Low-Income Kids a Better Chance for a Better Life

The research I recently wrote about makes a persuasive case for lifetime income inequalities that begin when children are very, very young.

But, as the title of this post suggests, we can choose to mitigate the disadvantages low-income children are born to. President Obama has proposed a multi-part initiative that would give a boost to some programs that do.

Rich and Poor Beginnings

Unequal life opportunities begin even before children are born. Studies tell us that poor mothers are less likely to get good prenatal care or enough of the right kinds of foods.

For these and other reasons, e.g., high levels of stress, they’re more likely to give birth to babies who weigh very little. These babies are at high risk for physical and learning disabilities — and ultimately chronic illnesses.

Other seeds for long-term economic disadvantage are also health-related, as the Academic Pediatrician Association’s summary of the “life-altering effects” of child poverty shows.

Still others have to do with how parents raise their kids — how much time they spend talking to them, answering their questions, playing with them, reading to them, etc. Or if not they, then other caregivers.

Highly-educated parents — mainly mothers — make a greater investment of time in such activities than mothers with less than a high school degree, even though they’re more likely to be employed.

One pay-off, according to an oft-cited study, is that young children of well-off parents hear about three and a half times as many words per hour as those of poor parents.

The more words the children heard, the better their performance when they got to the fourth grade.

A Better Start for Low-Income Kids, But Not Enough of Them

Early childhood education programs — for both parents and their kids — can help compensate for some of the disadvantages that cause poor children to get left behind, even before they start first grade.

Voluntary home visiting programs, for example, help low-income parents raise children who will enter kindergarten healthy and with the skills their well-off peers usually have.

A recent Washington Post article focuses on a fine example of one of these. “Preschool in its earliest form,” the writer calls them.

High-quality child care can make an important difference as well. But it’s inordinately costly for low-income parents who don’t have vouchers to subsidize it, as most apparently don’t.

And even if they could get a voucher, they might not find a suitable slot. In the District of Columbia, for example we’ve got waiting lists because providers don’t get reimbursed for their costs.

The Early Head Start program offers an alternative for low-income children under three. And like regular Head Start, it addresses their health and nutrition needs, as well as their social and intellectual development.

But in 2010, it served fewer than 4% of eligible children. And this was a year when the program had an infusion of money from the Recovery Act.

Head Start itself reached only about two-fifths of the children eligible, according to the National Women’s Law Center’s estimate.

In fact, only 65% of four year olds in the lowest income bracket go to preschool at all, as the Commission on Equity and Excellence in Education recently reported. And it’s often low quality, the Commission adds.

The participation rate is even lower for the poorest three year olds — about 42%.

But states are spending less on pre-K. Total funding dropped by more than $548 million in the 2011-12 school year alone.

And, as you’ve undoubtedly read, an estimated 70,000 low-income preschoolers will get fewer — and in some cases, no — services from Head Start, thanks to sequestration.

President’s Early Childhood Initiative

President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2014 budget includes an initiative billed as an Early Education for All Americans plan.

As CLASP reports:

  • Most of the money — $75 billion over 10 years — would go to states that agree to expand preschool slots for four year olds whose families are at or below 200% of the federal poverty line.
  • A $1.4 billion investment would expand child care slots for infants and toddlers. These would provide full-day care in programs that agree to meet the quality standards set for Early Head Start.
  • Another $750 million would fund competitive grants aimed at giving states incentives — and some help — to expand their preschool programs and, if needed, beef up quality.
  • And $15 billion would expand home visiting programs for at-risk children.

To fund the preschool part, the President wants Congress to increase the federal tax on tobacco products.

You can imagine the pushback — from the tobacco companies, corner stores and, of course, Republicans in Congress who oppose all tax increases (except for low-income families).

So the President’s proposals face an uphill battle, as they would even if the funding source were different.

They’re no magic bullet. But they’d do a good bit to help ensure that, in his words, “none of our children start the race of life already behind,” as so many poor kids do now.

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