The recent news that the Schneider Children’s Center at Southern Oregon University will be closing should be a concern for everyone in the Rogue Valley. Instead of this center closing, we should be opening others like it.
My prediction is that sooner or later we will recognize the importance of high-quality preschool education for all children in America, particularly in light of recent events in Baltimore, Md., as the best way to fight poverty and racial discrimination. Poverty, like teen births, is often attributed to family and culture. But children often face the same economic, political and social barriers their parents faced. This can explain much about intergenerational poverty.
This cycle needs to be broken. As other countries have shown, the best place to start is with preschool education.
Since the 1970s, child poverty rates in the United States have consistently been much higher than the poverty rates for other age groups and far exceed those in other developed countries. Oregon follows that trend, but unfortunately our numbers are worse.
In 2014 the child poverty rate in Oregon was 23 percent, while the national average was 22.6 percent. The proportion of single-parent families with children below the poverty level was 39 percent, and more children enter foster care homes in Oregon than in any other state and stay longer. The statistics are especially disconcerting when we consider children 5 years of age or less. These children are the most vulnerable to poverty and suffer most from its effects.
Child poverty has long-term costs to Oregon and to the United States. These costs have been well documented, with economists calculating the economic losses associated with child poverty to be nearly 4 percent of gross domestic product. To put this number in perspective, the total amount the federal government spends on poverty outside of Medicaid is less than 2 percent of GDP. Needless to say, there are also more important costs that go beyond GDP. These involve children’s development as independent and happy people, able to be part of and contribute to their community for life.
What can we do about this? The evidence is pretty clear. There are two primary factors that have significantly reduced child poverty in other countries: high-quality early childhood programs and paid parental leave. According to Nobel-Prize winning economist James Heckman, the benefit from investments in early childhood education is found not only in school and workplace performance, but also in developing non-cognitive skills, which appears to lead to less criminal activity and better integration into the societal mainstream for these children.
These studies are based on data from children who attended a variety of early childhood programs. Some of these programs did not yield much return at all, so it is important to stress that the investments must be in the right kind of programs. The most successful have been universal prekindergarten education; the Abecedarian program; and the Nurse-Family Partnership program, involving home visits to first-time mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Expanding participation of low-income children to quality preschool education should be a top priority for all Oregonians — I want to emphasize quality! The question now is how do we pay for it.
In 2013, Oregon lawmakers added $7 million in funding for employment-related day care, to help low-income working families with child care costs. But this program is targeted to the needs of working parents, not to early childhood development.
While these subsidies undoubtedly raise the number of children of all ages in child-care programs, the focus is not on enrollment in the high-quality preschool programs that have been successful in altering the life paths of many children. Also, many of the returns (better health and less crime) do not end up as cost savings to school districts but savings for other local or state government agencies such as law enforcement and health care. Without cost sharing from these groups, treating preschool as an investment with a high return does not make financial sense for schools and higher education alone.
Finally, studies in local economic development show investment in preschool programs is a better investment of taxpayers' dollars than providing costly tax subsidies to businesses. Though business incentives pay off more quickly than early childhood programs, they are less effective at raising earnings of the lowest income groups or creating employment.
We know how to lower the rate of poverty, but do we have the commitment at SOU and in the state to do so?
Richard P.F. Holt is a prize-winning author and Professor of Economics at Southern Oregon University.