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Help for struggling toddlers promises higher payoff than risky development schemes

Dane Smith
Courtesy of Growth & Justice
  Dane Smith

OTTERTAIL, Minn. — It was one of those Eureka! moments, a vivid and memorable glimpse of the investment choices facing a state that needs to reorder its priorities.

The setting was a very nice, northwoods–themed restaurant on a sparkly clear morning. I was looking out on a large fountain set in a pond and the beautifully manicured 18th hole of a brand new golf course in the heart of western Minnesota’s lake country.

And I was sitting in said rustic establishment with Nancy Jost, an earnest community leader with a tough job and a righteous mission. She was telling me over coffee about the struggle in mostly rural and small-town western Minnesota to deliver early childhood programs — things like getting minimal dental care to toddlers and good advice to young low-income parents on curbing kids’ tantrums and shaping their vitally important early years.

The fancy golf resort is in bankruptcy proceedings and was obviously not the smartest business investment Greater Minnesota has ever seen. In fact, the Star Tribune recently featured the resort as an example of unwise private-sector decisions by credit unions seeking better returns during the wild speculations of the recent real-estate bubble. It’s actually a beautiful place and I hope the resort eventually succeeds under new ownership.
Long-term results from investing in kids
But more and smarter public investment in early childhood, the needs that Nancy was talking about, provide a better payoff in the long run. There’s a growing consensus among business leaders, academic researchers and educators that this may be the very best possible long-term investment Minnesotans can make.

A better start for kids has proven to be effective at boosting success later in school, as well as increasing the likelihood that these young folks will get the higher education that increasingly is the ticket to economic survival and success.

Our research at Growth & Justice shows that there is a $1 million per-person lifetime difference between a young person who drops out of high school and one who gets some sort of post-secondary education credential. The latter status means a higher income for that young person, more taxes paid in, less government help over the course of that person’s life — not to mention the ripple effects on our economy and our quality-of-life. And there’s increasing evidence that this investment and intervention must begin as early as possible in that young person’s life.
A recent research study funded by the Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit Child Trends (which has a Midwest office in Minneapolis) for the Council of Chief State School Officers, also a nonprofit based in Washington, found that significant disparities in cognitive development and health can be measured at nine months and at two years of age for children in low-income, non-white households, typically when the mother herself has a low educational attainment level.

Fully half of U.S. babies at or near poverty
This is not a marginally small and negligible number of children, by the way. Here’s a staggering and embarrassing fact for the United States: Fully one-half of all the infants (those younger than nine months) live in households with incomes that are at or near the poverty level, according to the Child Trends report. Think about that: Half of our babies are in a situation that threatens their future, and ours.

The report goes on with “policy implications” sections that call for public investments — and yes, that would require tax dollars — “to intervene during the first three years of life or from birth to school entry so that disparities do not have a chance to persist or widen.”

In our Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Students program, we promote a menu of effective interventions, featuring government, nonprofit or private programs, and there is no shortage of highly credible groups and leaders who have been urging this kind of investment for many years.

In fact, Art Rolnick, senior vice president and director of research for at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has become a national expert on the subject. He has been telling audiences for years that the return on investment for early childhood development and education is better than many or most stock market prospects.

Help from the Early Childhood Initiative
And out in western Minnesota, Jost can see the difference firsthand in parents and children who are getting help from Early Childhood Initiative of the West Central Initiative, a regional community development organization for which Jost serves as early childhood coordinator. Generous funding from the McKnight Foundation is providing the money for the initiative, but state leaders agree that hundreds of millions more dollars from state and local government dollars need to be invested annually for this purpose.

“In Pope County, our Incredible Parenting program is helping parents who are at their wits’ end trying to deal with their young children’s outbursts and difficult behavior,” Jost said.

She also talks about the positive effect that a localized guide to early parenting is having on the White Earth Reservation and the innovative technology that’s improving early childhood dental care in her region. The latest effort involves a mobile team that takes digital photos of children’s teeth so that dentists can diagnose problems remotely, saving the expense of individual visits.

These are important but small steps forward in a daunting uphill climb. “Statistics show that nearly half of all 5-year-olds in Minnesota aren’t fully prepared for kindergarten,” Jost says.

Doing all we can to prepare all Minnesota kids for kindergarten, then following through with careful attention to their needs until they reach and finish at least a one-year or two-year degree, would cost real money at a time when we are facing serious budget shortages for at least three or four more years. But helping all our children realize their full potential adds up to billions of dollars of black ink in the long run, and better lives for them too.

Dane Smith, president of the St. Paul-based think-tank Growth & Justice, enjoyed a 30-year career as a journalist for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, where he focused on state, local and federal government and politics.

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