Head start on learning

Funding: Children's programs need to be a stronger beneficiary of booming economy.

June 06, 2000

THE PLIGHT of too many children in the United States is Dickensian: In these best of times, for them it's the worst of times.

Despite our unprecedented economic prosperity, nearly one in five American children still lives in poverty.

That's why it's important to help at-risk kids by bolstering proven programs.

House and Senate panels have rightly supported spending increases for the child care development grant, which primarily provides families with day-care vouchers. And for Head Start, too, which educates 3- and 4-year-olds, offers health and nutrition programs -- and links families to myriad resources that can help lift them from poverty.

What's troubling is that in the Senate plan, these children's programs win while others lose. Lawmakers cut $1 billion from a grant for child protective and social services, areas with already too few resources.

Moreover, in cutting these funds, an appropriations subcommittee made the suggestion that states should use tobacco settlement money to fill the gaps.

It's a cynical shell game.

Some will say the Senate's plan to add $1 billion to Head Start is exceedingly generous. But consider this: Fewer than 50 percent of eligible children are enrolled in Head Start. This increased funding will serve another 70,000 kids. Much more needs to be done.

Studies show that every dollar spent early on at-risk children saves society at least $7 later. Good child care and preschool programs deliver children to first grade ready to learn and makes them less likely to repeat grades or end up in juvenile court. They are more likely to succeed.

The House and Senate should reconcile their allocations using the Senate's more generous numbers: $1 billion for Head Start, and $817 million for the child care development grant.

Then lawmakers should restore the child protective and social services grant funding.

As Republicans in Congress press for a tax cut -- which most Americans have said is not a high priority -- they should avoid nickel-and-diming poor children to get to their bottom line.

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