Investment in kids just prudent
As the father of an 18-month-old girl and another baby due in July, the sage advice of parents who say you only get one chance at child rearing, really hits me at home.Modern science has shown that even before birth to the time they reach 8 years old, children are affected by the world around them in ways that influence their ability later in life to stay in school, go to college, hold down a job – basically to be productive members of society.Obviously, I want my own children to excel. But as an elected official, I’ve come to understand that there’s a deeper lesson here for all Coloradoans. By providing all Colorado children, no matter what their social or economic situation, with access to early life experiences that will ensure their full mental and emotional development as adults, we can not only strengthen families in our state but also ensure a healthy and productive work force in our state for decades to come.It is the one true fiscally conservative, socially liberal cause that can unite moderate politicians to something good for all Coloradoans. Our children are the best investment any of us can make and we must do it now.Early childhood development creates four ways to ensure brighter futures for our children: family support, early child-care education, early child health, and social and emotional development. Unfortunately, in Colorado nearly one-third of our 345,000 children under the age of 5 live in families that fall below the federal poverty level: $20,000 for a family of four. According to the Colorado Children’s Campaign, this put them “at risk” of not developing mentally or emotionally.That means we, as taxpayers, will bear the burden of supporting them as adults through public mental health, housing and other assistance programs, or at worst, the justice system.For every $1 invested in high-quality early education for at-risk children, between $4 and $12 are saved later in costs for special-education services, health care, incarceration and social services.We live in a state where we have to spend our tax dollars wisely. Just as responsible parents on a tight budget shop to get the most bang for their hard-earned bucks, Colorado lawmakers face tough decisions about where to best spend their constituents’ money.It is just in the past decade that researchers have determined the critical role that children’s earliest years play. For example, in February 1997, Time magazine ran a cover story: “How a Child’s Brain Develops.” The findings were astonishing: Ninety percent of brain development occurs between the prenatal months and 3 years old. The article went on to state that early experiences clearly affect this development.Knowing this, how could we not invest in programs that would help our children and our neighbors children learn, achieve and excel?Colorado voters took a huge step forward in supporting the health and well-being of this state through the passage of Referendum C.In addition, collaborations between the legislators, county commissioners and the Colorado Children’s Campaign are working with Rep. Judy Solano and Sen. Brandon Shaffer on House Bill 1397, which will bolster early childhood education in Colorado. Politics and parenting aside, there’s an undeniable financial benefit.James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics, is one of the strongest advocates of private and public investment in early childhood development. He says that “such programs are likely to generate substantial savings to society and to promote higher economic growth by improving the skills of the work force. … Focusing solely on earnings gains, returns to dollars invested are as high as 15 to 17 percent.” Now that seems to be a return on investment that Warren Buffet could get behind.Sadly, however, with high-risk families having families earlier, the impact to Health and Human Services, Education and our Justice departments will be 10 percent to 25 percent worse, within a generation, according to Dr. Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy. As our federal, state and local budgets continue to cut social programs that support children, the financial forecast is dire: a lower rate of return on taxpayers’ dollars at a time when we can ill afford the excess.We must focus our attention to the children of Colorado as our future and greatest asset by creating access to affordable health care, day care and early child-care education.When I lie besides my baby daughter and feel such amazing love and awe, I sometimes think about all that I have learned about and how fast her brain develops from love, attention and play. But, I also know that there are parents who for lack of income, experience or knowledge aren’t as well equipped to give their children this most important early start.It’s often been said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Without a doubt, the investment we make in our children today will repay us many times over in the future.Arn Menconi is an Eagle County commissioner and vice chair of the Colorado Counties Inc. Health and Human Services Committee.