It Pays to Educate Girls

June 26, 1994|By SARA ENGRAM

This past week, the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the G.I. Bill, legislation that is credited with helping create the largest middle class in history. A large part of that achievement can be credited to the fact that the bill made a college education possible for tens of thousands of returning veterans.

Some observers point to more far-reaching effects, noting that the unprecedented number of educated workers made possible a shift from an industrial economy to one that is based on knowledge -- a country whose wealth depends on brains, not brawn.

Education is a powerful force. That common-sense observation is getting increased attention from development experts -- and the lessons are as applicable in this country as in poor nations.

A 1990 World Bank report declares, ''Evidence is overwhelming that education improves health and productivity in developing countries, and that the poorest people benefit the most.''

But the main focus of the report is evidence that ''when schools open their doors wider to girls and women in particular, the benefits multiply.'' Elizabeth L. King, author of the report, says ''a more educated mother raises a healthier family; she can better apply improved hygiene and nutrition practices. She has fewer and better educated children. She is more productive at home and in the workplace and is better able to get further education. . . . Indeed, failure to raise women's education to a par with men's exacts a high development cost -- in lost opportunities to raise productivity and income, and improve the quality of life.''

In a country where a roundly despised welfare system is an essential safety net for women who become mothers before finishing high school -- and who then find it difficult to continue their education -- these findings hold some valuable lessons.

And in a country where rising health-care costs underscore the need to focus more on preventing expensive health problems, it's important to know that around the world, in poor countries and rich ones, study after study shows that the single most important indicator of the health of a child is the education of the mother.

In that context, a ''Progress of Nations'' report released this week by UNICEF, the United Nations Childrens Fund, highlights some disturbing facts. As part of its assessment of progress in education, the report ranks nations on the percentage of girls who reach at least grade 5 of primary school.

The United States ranks 19th among 27 industrialized countries, with 94 percent of girls achieving that level. Austria, Finland, Israel, Japan, Sweden and Switzerland achieved 100 percent.

Jamaica and Hong Kong, not included in the industrialized nations category, reached 99 percent. In Turkey, 97 percent of girls reach that level in school. Even Albania, at 97 percent, and Romania, at 95 percent, edged out the U.S.

Rankings like this one aren't the whole story, but they can help shed light on some persistent social problems. A country worried about rising rates of births out of wedlock has a vested interest in whether a new single mother will be able to provide for her family. If not, the social costs can be heavy indeed.

A few years ago, the Children's Defense Fund reported that between 1973 and 1986 the median earnings of family heads younger than 25 fell from $15,049 to $6,000 in constant dollars. Another study by the Center for Population Options found that in 1990 the government spent more than $25 billion for social, health and welfare services to families begun by teen-age mothers, an increase of $3.5 billion over 1989. Those facts help explain why the perennial debates about welfare reform have taken on new urgency.

The term ''at-risk'' seems omnipresent in social-policy debates. In regard to young people, it usually refers to boys considered ''at risk'' of violence. But girls are at-risk too, even for violence. FBI reports have shown a sharp increase in the number of girls arrested for violent crimes in recent years.

Girls also have other ways of striking back at a society that seems to care little for them. They give birth before they are prepared for parenthood.

Throughout the Third World, development efforts that concentrate on improving the education and well-being of girls and women are paying enormous benefits. Primary education is especially important, but so is any program that gives them skills, knowledge and hope for a better life.

Those successes contain some important lessons for policies here, in a country where gaps between rich and poor increasingly resemble the divide between the so-called Third World and the First.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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