Build families, not roads

The Baltimore Sun

There is an assumption that fixing roads and repairing buildings are the fastest ways to improve the Maryland economy. But we should test our assumptions and ask tough questions. Who will get this money? How many jobs will be created, and who will they go to?

Billions of dollars funneled to a few companies and a few thousand workers will only slowly trickle its way into the economy as a whole. And funds for capital projects will not help state and local governments or nonprofit organizations fill gaping holes in their operating budgets. They will still have to cut services to families already hurting.

We will have better roads, but fewer people will be able to afford to drive on them. Our schools will look nicer, but class sizes will be higher. We will have brand-new health clinics, but few doctors and nurses in them.

That's why Maryland should resist the rush to use all of the proposed federal economic stimulus money on traditional "infrastructure" such as roads and instead offer concrete help to families most in need. Providing the money and services directly to people is a better way to help the Maryland economy and to help families.

Let's start by expanding the state's refundable income tax credit. This provides money directly to working families facing the greatest economic difficulty.

For the unemployed or underemployed, let's provide one year of free tuition in training programs that will produce permanent improvements in job skills and require construction companies to offer apprenticeships to youths.

For low-performing students, let's provide a year of free tutoring and summer school so that they can catch up to their peers.

Let's make sure that every woman who has had a recent difficult pregnancy receives intensive health care in 2009 so that her next pregnancy is more successful.

For every family with a delinquent youth, let's provide the intensive counseling - multisystemic therapy and functional family therapy - that research shows can produce long-term rehabilitation in just six months.

For a family where a child has been neglected, let's provide a year of in-home services and ongoing casework that builds a permanent supportive team of friends, families and community members.

Let's knock on the door of every family to make sure they take advantage of existing support programs, including food stamps, health insurance, tax credits and unemployment, and let's be sure that the state has the money to pay for these services.

Some fiscal analysts say that you should not use a one-time infusion of money for services. They say once a road is built it is built, while a service has ongoing costs.

But we are in unusual times, facing serious short-term catastrophes. We need to rewrite the rules and not be bound by narrow thinking.

A service that can be provided in one year with long-term, positive impact is not much different from a road. Plus, these reforms will produce both immediate and long-term savings.

If the federal money is meant to provide short-term help, let's use it to provide maximum immediate assistance to Maryland's families in 2009.

Matthew H. Joseph is executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, which promotes improved outcomes for children and families in Maryland and receives no public funding. His e-mail is

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