President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2012 budget message contains good news for education: Even as other social programs are on the chopping block, he proposes to spend more money on schools. No news there—expanding educational opportunities has been a consistent theme of the Obama presidency. But if the aim is to boost America’s human capital by altering the arc of children’s lives, education is too narrow a lens. What’s really needed are evidence-based policies that support kids and families from crib to college.
It’s a truism that America’s capacity to compete in the global economy and to govern itself wisely is in the hands of our youths. Yet while we say that we love kids—insert the phrase “for the children” into any policy pitch, the pollsters report, and popular support rises 10 percentage points—as a nation we fall desperately short.
The statistics tell the tale. Although the United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, a 2009 study of 30 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that the child-poverty rate in this country is twice the OECD average. We spend a third less than the OECD average on young children, we post high child-mortality rates, and the average educational achievement of an American youngster is the seventh-worst. In the policy version of eating the seed corn, the old are taking money, freedom, and opportunity from the young. Washington spends less than $3,000 for each child—and seven times more on a senior citizen.
And for all the “we love kids” rhetoric, matters are getting worse. Although the 2009 stimulus package temporarily boosted federal support for children, those funds are running out fast. Without that stimulus money, spending on young people would be less than 8 percent of the federal budget. Those figures translate into laid-off teachers, cutbacks in after-school programs, fewer dollars for early education, escalating college tuition, and inadequate health care. And unless there’s a quick about-face, this disinvestment in the young will accelerate. “Kids Share 2008,” a study by the Urban Institute, estimates that from 2007 to 2018, the slice of the gross domestic product devoted to children will fall by 13 percent.
It’s not just the left-out kids who wind up losing. The rest of us also pay dearly. As Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz demonstrate in The Race Between Education and Technology, our global edge can largely be explained by the fact that during much of the 20th century, the United States had a 35-year lead, compared with other industrialized nations, in expanding higher education. But this historic advantage has evaporated since 1970, as other countries have sprinted past us in education, as well as in an array of supports that enable youngsters to take full advantage of the education that’s available to them.
Whether you’re motivated by social justice or enlightened self-interest, this is policy perversity. A mountain of research by geneticists, neuroscientists, child psychologists, and economists converges on the proposition that investing in the future of children yields handsome long-term gains for youths, in happier and more successful lives, as well as for the rest of us, in greater prosperity and a livelier democracy. Economists calibrate the public benefits of a good parent-support program as nearly three times higher than the costs. For an exemplary preschool, the lifetime return on the dollar to individuals and society can run as high as 17-to-1.
A mountain of research ... converges on the proposition that investing in the future of children yields handsome long-term gains for youths ... as well as for the rest of us."
President Obama’s budget proposal includes a new $350 million program to spur states into building stronger systems for early learning and development for children up to age 5. That’s a milestone moment because it portends a new paradigm for how we think about youths—a kids-first approach. The guiding principle is as simple, and as powerful, as the Golden Rule: Every child deserves what’s good enough for a child you love.
The Golden Rule standard isn’t about charity or acts of noblesse oblige. All children, not only those who grow up without money, deserve the kind of support that gives them their best chance to learn and grow. They would benefit from the chance to acquire the skills and resiliency necessary to meet the challenges that life invariably throws at them. What’s needed isn’t a one-size-fits-all program, but support that can meet children’s particular needs—support that’s family-centered, effective, and unwavering. After all, isn’t this just what you’d want for your own youngster?
As you’d expect, in many ways poor kids fare the worst. The 20 percent whose family income falls below the poverty line are more likely to do badly in school, become teen parents, and, later on, have a hard time finding a job. Ten percent of them don’t have ready access to a doctor, a third don’t see a dentist, and one in six can’t always count on having enough food to lead an active, healthy life. Matters are only marginally better for the 20 percent of kids whose families earn between 100 percent and 200 percent of the poverty level. But while middle-class youngsters aren’t confronted with all these disadvantages, their situation is hardly cause for complacency.
What’s happening in school illustrates why middle-class parents should be worried. In tests of reading and math readiness administered to kids when they arrive at school, the gap between middle-income kids and those born to wealth is just as big as the gap that separates the poor from the middle class. More than 10 percent of middle-class children repeat a grade or drop out. And irrespective of the amount of their parents’ paycheck, about one youngster in five reportedly has suffered from a mental disorder such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, or depression, in their lifetime. These disorders often go undiagnosed and untreated, and any of these problems can potentially derail a child.
Which initiatives are potential game-changers for kids? Here’s a starter list, one that won’t break the bank:
• Give new parents strong support;
• Provide high-quality early education;
• Link schools and communities to improve what both offer kids;
• Provide mentors to youngsters who’d benefit from a stable, caring adult in their lives; and,
• Start youngsters off with a nest egg that helps pay for college or start a career.
These policies would improve every youngster’s chances of success. They would promote fairness as well as efficiency. They’ve been proven to work in even the grimmest circumstances. They can be put in place on a wide scale. They give concrete meaning to our shared sense of stewardship for the next generation. They’re also affordable: My back-of-the-envelope calculation is that these initiatives would increase total federal spending on children, $265.9 billion in fiscal year 2011, by about $40 billion, or 15 percent.
Because these ideas represent wise investments, they can keep America competitive. They are joined to one another, generating important synergies. They add up to one big idea: making the array of supports that kids need as commonly available as kindergarten, and turning cradle-to-college support into something that American families take as much for granted as baby checkups.
Beacons of excellence can be found in every state, in barrios as well as gated communities. Whether it’s the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan or a sunrise-to-sunset, 12-month-a-year public school in a rough and tumble Chicago neighborhood, you leave awed by what is happening there, wishing that your own kids could have similar opportunities. At the same time, you come away troubled that so few youngsters, whatever their backgrounds, are lucky enough to have such experiences. It’s as if they’ve won the lottery. Why shouldn’t every child be so fortunate?
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as A Golden Rule for Kids