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

June 5, 2013

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.


What Would Sequestration Mean for Low-Income DC Families?

April 12, 2012

I decided to write about the across-the-board spending cuts the Budget Control Act mandates because I wanted to be sure we all had a common frame of reference when I turned to what we all, I trust, really care about.

How much less would federally-funded programs have to help low-income people?

Easy enough to answer, I thought. After all, the new report from the Coalition on Human Needs includes program-specific tables.

But I was immediately overwhelmed. The primary table lists more than 140 programs that serve what CHN classifies as basic human needs.

For each, we’ve got past and current spending levels, plus two estimates* of how much the program would lose in January 2013, when the first round of sequestration is due.

The range and extent of the losses is overwhelming. Trying to get a handle on them is overwhelming too. This is one thorough report!

So I’ll focus on a subset of the handful of programs that CHN breaks down to state-level impacts — those that best answer the question my title poses.

WIC

WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) has already suffered from a series of cuts.

If Congress resists the urge to take another whack at the program, the District of Columbia would lose close to $1.5 million as its share of the 2013 automatic cut.

Less money at a time when food prices are rising. We might see a waiting list, though mothers can hardly put their children on hold till they can nourish them properly.

LIHEAP

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has also suffered from federal deficit-reduction fever.

Current funding is about $1.6 billion less than it was in Fiscal Year 2010, not counting the temporary boost LIHEAP got from the Recovery Act. The President’s budget would cut another $452 million.

But say the program got level-funded. The District would then lose somewhat over $1 million in the first round of sequestration.

Some unknown number of eligible households would be literally in the cold — some homeless, since evictions can follow unmanageable utility bills.

National survey figures suggest that about 41% of the at-risk households would be families with children.

Child Care and Development Block Grant

The Child Care and Development Block Grant has two funding streams — one so-called entitlement that’s shielded from the across-the-board cuts and one dependent on annual appropriations that isn’t.

If the Fiscal Year 2013 appropriation were the same as what the block grant is getting now, the District would lose $296,000.

May not seem like much, but the program already lacks funds to make affordable high-quality child care available, especially for low-income parents with infants and children with disabilities.

Head Start

Here in the District, as nationwide, Head Start supports a range of services for low-income children and their parents.

If Congress level-funds the program, the District would lose close to $2.8 million in Fiscal Year 2013.

So there goes more money that supports early childhood development — and gives some low-income parents an alternative to the dauntingly high costs of market-rate child care.

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act

Title I of what’s now called No Child Left Behind funds services to help low-income students graduate “college and career ready.” It’s the single largest source of federal financial support for public school systems.

If Congress approves the same amount the program is getting now, the District would initially lose well over $4.6 million.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute tells us, Mayor Gray’s proposed budget will mean a cost crunch for at least some schools — and no extra funding for those with high student poverty rates.

The Title I cut would, of course, increase the cost-crunch — and undermine urgently-needed efforts to prepare low-income youth for the demands of our high-education/high-skills job market.

IDEA Grants

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal government provides three sets of grants to help states meet their legal obligations for educating children with disabilities.

Again assuming level-funding, the District would lose more than $1.7 million from the cut in the largest grant program. Total loss would be larger, of course.

As you may know, the District’s budget has long been stressed by the costs of providing the required “free and appropriate” education to children with disabilities.

The Mayor aims to bring more of these children into the regular public school system — better for them as well as for the bottom line, if the schools get enough funding to meet the children’s needs.

The partial loss of federal grant funds would presumably require the District to invest more local dollars in special education services — more, at least, than it would otherwise have to.

I shudder to think where those dollars would come from.

* Analysts can only ballpark funding losses because the across-the-board cuts would be based on Fiscal Year 2013 appropriations. And Congress has only just started working on these.

CHN provides two sets of estimates based on current appropriations. One applies a percent estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. The other uses a higher percent estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

CBPP explains — convincingly to me — that CBO oversimplified its Fiscal Year 2013 estimates to make them consistent with out-year estimates. So I’m reporting cuts estimated with the Center’s percent.


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