Deficit Reduction: Not at the Cost of Our Children

No one questions we are in tough times. More than one in five children is poor; one in four children is at risk of hunger; nearly 8 million children go uninsured; unemployment is unacceptably high; and poverty is rising. Families are struggling, and as they do, so do their children.

Isn't it time we got back to basics? If we are serious about reducing our long-term deficit and getting America back to productivity, we need to look at the segment of our population that is most key to our future success and economic productivity as a nation -- our children.

We hear talk from news pundits and politicians, many calling for spending cuts, and most of those cuts aimed at our most vulnerable populations -- children, the homeless, the disabled -- groups without powerful and highly-paid lobbyists to walk the halls of Congress on their behalf. Some proposals would mean a reduction of more than 21 percent to children's programs. But reductions to programs that help our nation's children would be one of the worst economic moves we could make right now.

Earlier this month, pre-kindergarten made The New York Times Economix Blog as one of the top investments that could be made with the money we spend on tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year (about $60 billion). Providing pre-kindergarten to all three- and four-year-olds would cost anywhere from $50-60 billion a year.

Scientific research and leading economists have said for years that investing in children is one of the smartest investments we can make. Dr. James Heckman, Nobel Laureate economist, has found that the return on investments in early care and education can run from 10-18 percent. That is sound investing. And it is not news to children's advocates. There are hopeful signs that this deficit-blowing fact is beginning to trickle down to the public at large. As Dr. Heckman said in his letter to the National Committee on Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Reform, "Budget deficits are created by unwise spending. Budget deficits are solved by wiser spending informed by data and decision-making highly attuned to achieving greater value on investments." And among Dr. Heckman's top fiscal recommendations for our current deficit crisis? Investments in and expansion to proven early childhood programs.

The facts on this are in; they have been for quite some time. Proven programs like Nurse Family Partnership, Perry Preschool, Head Start and other early childhood programs save future dollars in education, juvenile and criminal justice system costs and increase the future output and contributions to our nation by the youngest and most vulnerable among us today.

We have the facts -- now we need the political will. For inspiration (and proof it works), we can look to Britain where Tony Blair began a war on child poverty in 1999 and 10 years later, through a series of measures including early childhood education, child care and supports for families cut the child poverty rate by more than half. As the new coalition government, led by the conservative Tory Party, came into power in May 2010 amidst urgent economic woes, it has maintained this commitment to children in the face of other budget cuts, preserving and even expanding early education and maintaining other family supports that had proven so successful. We hope that both Democrats and Republicans in the United States could learn from this winning model.

When President Kennedy challenged us to put a man on the moon in a decade, we did it. But you can't reach for the stars if you can't do basic math. Investing in our children is investing in America. Being in the midst of an economic downturn makes this even more critical. This hardship should bring us back to basics -- investing in our children. Dr. Heckman may say it best, "It is a natural reaction to cut spending when faced with a budget deficit. Make no mistake, reducing spending in some areas in necessary and warranted. However, when one has dug themselves into a hole, the solution is not to stop digging as much as to start digging the hand and toe holds that facilitate climbing out. Investing in early childhood education is that hand and toe hold."