Cheaper Than Paying Later

January 18, 1994|By CARL T. ROWAN

WASHINGTON — Washington.--I was delighted to see the recommendation by a 47-member bipartisan panel that the Head Start program for pre-schoolers be expanded, with some programs made available all day and year-round.

This country has recently experienced an orgy of stupid and mean-spirited proposals about how to deal with rising illegitimacy, how to reform welfare, how to keep poor, ''one-parent'' children from becoming lifelong burdens on society, or even criminals.

There's rampant talk of cutting off welfare when a woman doesn't get a job in two years, even where no jobs are available.

''What happens to the poor children?'' you ask, and the ''get tough'' guys talk about taking the children from the mother and putting them in foster homes -- as though foster homes are cost-free. Some say, ''Put them up for adoption,'' an especially stupid suggestion given the fact that there isn't and shouldn't be a legal basis for taking a baby from its mother. No one rushes to adopt the hundreds of thousands of minority babies that already are available.

One truism seems obvious: Early intervention into the lives of millions of deprived infants and children is necessary if they are to grow up as healthy, educated, law-abiding human beings. That intervention must be by churches and private charities, and certainly by governments.

The Head Start program, which serves more than 700,000 children, most from ages 3 to 5, is the most benign and beneficial government intrusion that I know. Yet, Head Start never has taken in more than a fraction of the youngsters who were eligible for it and desperately needed it. Only 40 percent today, to be precise.

This recent report to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala tells us that now Head Start facilities are deteriorating, and that pay scales are so low that staff turnover is heavy. The most experienced Head Start teachers are paid an average of $15,000 a year. Scandalous! That is why the Clinton administration must keep its promise to increase Head Start money from $2.7 billion to $8 billion a year by 1997.

These new Head Start funds would be used in infinitely wiser ways than the $22 billion proposed for new prisons in which to incarcerate these youngsters, who bigots and fools have already condemned to become criminals. Funding Head Start properly is a saner use of your and my money than setting up ''boot camps'' in which ''first offenders'' almost certainly will be filled with such resentment and rage that they will become pathologically anti-social adults.

Most Americans don't realize that the Head Start intervention involves more than nice people teaching deprived pre-schoolers. It includes paying social workers to counsel the families of these children -- to help shield the youngsters from the physical, emotional and other wounds associated with growing up in impoverished and often violent environments.

But in some cases, a single Head Start social worker is asked to work with 500 families. What an absurdity!

Conservatives on this bipartisan panel could not see beyond ''the bottom line.'' They said Head Start will cost too much per child -- perhaps $10,000 annually.

But the costs of Head Start's caring, early intervention is trifling compared with the expense of medical bills, funerals, policemen, court procedures and a prison bed for those children we fail to give a fair and decent start in life.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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