Tom Zirpoli: Investing in children days dividends

There are about 25 million children in the United States age 5 years and under. They are the future of our nation.
Young children are exposed to a variety of environmental variables that place them at risk for developmental and behavioral disorders. But none of these variables is as significant as poverty.
Poverty plays an important role in children's overall well-being, academic success and social behavior. Unless the larger community intervenes, the majority of these children will continue the cycle of poverty.
Unfortunately for some, children do not get to choose the home environment in which they are born. They do not get to select their parents or their neighborhood. They are not responsible for their circumstances; they are victims of their circumstances. And while we can blame their parents for their situation in life, reaching out to help poor children is both socially and economically the right thing to do.
In 1974, children replaced the elderly as the poorest subgroup of our nation's population. Today, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 23 percent of American children live in poverty. Unfortunately for these children, a family's income plays a significant role in the type of basic care they will receive, and this variable plays a significant role in a child's academic and social achievement.
Children from low-income families have less access to important early intervention programs than children from higher-income families. Yet, they are the children who need early intervention the most. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, "the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students in the United States has grown about 40 percent."
An analysis of state data in Illinois and Kentucky found that income level alone accounted for 71 percent of the variance in standardized achievement scores. Additional variables such as English proficiency, the student's race, class size and several teacher-related variables accounted for only an additional 7 percent to the predictability of student performance.
Since the early 1960s, studies looking at preschool and other early intervention programs have shown these programs to be effective in helping some children break the cycle of poverty. Early intervention programs provide readiness skills for children entering kindergarten. These readiness skills include basic social behaviors such as listening, following directions, staying-in-seat and on-task behaviors.
Unfortunately, due to funding cuts, millions of poor children are unable to participate in Head Start and other effective early intervention programs where they can learn the academic and social readiness skills necessary for school success. We are, in effect, giving up on these children before they even begin first grade.
The best known long-term study on the efficacy of early intervention is the Perry Preschool Project initiated in 1962. In this study, half of the preschool-aged children selected for the study were randomly assigned to a preschool program. The other students started school without the benefit of a preschool. Researchers followed these children for decades. At age 19, the students with the preschool experience had higher high school graduation rates, scored higher on standardized assessments and were less likely to need special education services than the students without a preschool experience. At age 27, 71 percent of the preschool group completed high school, compared with 54 percent of the control group; 42 percent of the preschool group had incomes over $2,000 per month compared to only 6 percent of the control group; and 36 percent of the preschool students owned homes compared with only 13 percent of the control group.
In addition, the preschool students had more stable marriages, fewer out-of-wedlock births and fewer arrests. By age 40, the study calculated "a return to society of more than $17 for every dollar invested" in the program.
Access to early intervention services for children in need should have bipartisan support. It is good for the children and essential to our nation's future.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun