Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Poverty Leaves Every Child Behind

  • "What Happens When the Poor Receive a Stipend?"  ran on the New York Times Opinion page on January 18.  It reveals a study that occurred when the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina decided to distribute the largess of their new gambling casino to every family, no strings attached.  Luckily, 1,460 children in the group had already been under a study by Professor Jane Costello of Duke University Medical School. She was tracking incidents of psychiatric disorders among the group.  She had a baseline measure and was in the perfect position to track the effect of the infusion of cash, which eventually reached $6000 per family per year.

  • Recently I heard a re-broadcast of the October 19, 2012 This American Life.  The theme that united the four stories were people or groups who managed to "get away" with something.  The fourth story was called "Pre K-O. "  It was about how the governor of Oklahoma managed to pass a law stipulating universal pre-school right under the noses of state legislators who might object to the intrusion of big government.  Now, of course, no one could imagine cutting the program.  A prominent businessman helped in the fight because he saw it as an investment that would save money in the long run.

The results in both of the above cases were immediate and lasting for children.  Measurable and economically rewarding things--sometimes astoundingly so--for both the state and the children began immediately.  The younger the child the more pronounced were the changes.

In the case of the Oklahoma pre-K instruction, teachers and superintendents saw an immediate change in student ability to learn and an increase in enthusiasm for learning, all observable in the first year following universal pre-kindergarten instruction.

In the case of North Carolina, it turns out that the reduction of stress on the Cherokee families resulted in a lessening of mental illness, an increase in on-time high school graduation, a reduction in crime among the young.  As the article states:
By age 3, measures of vocabulary, working memory and executive function show an inverse relationship with the stressors experienced by parents.
In both cases economists see the expenditures spent early in life as far out-weighed by the savings to society.  It is good business for a state to spend money on its youngest citizens.  It saves lots of money down the road.

The evidence that expenditures on children is good for the economy and future investment of resources in social programs--prisons, mental hospitals, addiction programs--has been indisputable and well-known even before Richard Nixon vetoed the Economic Opportunity Amendment in 1971.

Here is some of what he said on that occasion:
Though Title V's stated purpose, "to provide every child with a full and fair opportunity to reach his full potential" is certainly laudable, the intent of Title V is overshadowed by the fiscal irresponsibility, administrative unworkability, and family-weakening implications of the system it envisions.  We owe our children something more than good intentions.
Family weakening.  Pish-posh.  The North Carolina study reveals that the real weakening of families is caused by the stressors of poverty.

Nixon, however, was right about something: we do owe our children something more than good intentions.

The No Child Left Behind Act has been overshadowed by both fiscal irresponsibility (billions of taxpayer dollars diverted to testing companies), and administrative unworkability (billions of taxpayer dollars diverted to the collection of data).

It has been a very bad intention -- shifting public dollars into private hands -- cloaked in the Orwellian language of a truly good intention.  We have been duped.  Repeatedly.

Dismantle the testing industry and divert the dollars to enriching the lives of our youngest, poorest citizens.

Statistics, like the ones used in the two situations above, have proven that the past decade has been reckless spending with zero results.  If we shift those dollars to shoring up our 16 million children (22%) living in poverty,  the impact will be immediate and long lasting.

And we can start to feel good about ourselves again.