Kids and budget cuts

September 15, 1992

No matter how you cut it, paring the state's budget by half-billion dollars is bound to hurt. But some cuts can cause more lasting harm than others. Like many interest groups, advocates for children's programs have usually taken a line-in-the-sand approach, trying to fend off any cuts at all. This year, that tactic is unrealistic. The challenge facing advocates now is to help state officials sort out the least damaging alternatives.

Where children are concerned, those choices are particularly important. Already, many Maryland children face limited futures. That is a human tragedy, of course, but it spells future fiscal problems as well. For children whose basic needs are not met, who get little or no health care, whose schools fail them and who face danger in their homes and on the streets, cuts in services that offer them help and hope could be devastating. No one should be surprised when, a decade or two down the road, these troubled young people grow into adults who consume far more tax dollars than they could ever produce.

Advocates for Children and Youth, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving child welfare, has suggested some questions for policy makers to ask as they address the state's budget crisis: Does the service attract federal dollars to the state? Does the program prevent the need for a higher cost service? Does it promote economic self-sufficiency for parents? Does it represent a worthy investment in the education of the state's future work force? Does it keep children healthy? Does it keep families together, preventing the need for foster care?

Clearly, painful budget cuts are ahead. But existing programs are already inadequate. On Sunday, Sun reporter Scott Shane recounted the story of Andre Jennings, one of those resilient children who seems able to cope with circumstances that would crush the spirit of most other people. Abandoned by his father and left to his own devices when his mother turned into a drug addict and prostitute, young Andre found ways to survive. Many of his activities were illegal, and his first arrest came at the age of 6. Still, there is hope that Andre, now incarcerated at the Charles Hickey School for juvenile delinquents, can turn his life around. Many things went wrong in his family. With proper help, some of them could have been prevented, increasing the chances that Andre and his sisters can avoid their parents' mistakes.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That old truism is especially worth remembering now as state officials attempt to make the most of scarce taxpayer dollars.

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