Opinion: Investing in America’s children pays, even if Mom is on drugs

Opinion: Investing in America’s children pays, even if Mom is on drugs

For too many American children, the future is already written. Their parents’ income broadly predicts what their earnings will be in adulthood. For those in poverty, the chances of breaking out are dwindling — resulting in a less prosperous, increasingly ossified society.

If today’s presidential candidates wanted to rewrite that future, if they wanted to break the link between background and opportunity, they’d be talking a lot more about a specific stage of Americans’ lives: early childhood.

In the U.S., economic inequality is already imprinted on children when they show up for the first day of kindergarten. If their parents lack resources, as measured by education or income, they’re much more likely to have suffered substandard child care or food insecurity. They’re twice as likely to be obese and only a third as likely to have the skills and behavior to be ready for school — factors that demonstrably influence health and education well into adulthood.

Progressive Democrats have long embraced an aggressive and evidence-based solution: Do everything possible to ensure that from age zero to 5, all kids receive high-quality care, nutrition and education, even if their families can’t afford it. Establish a universal paid family leave so parents can spend time with their newborns; affordable, high-quality child care; and two years of public pre-school with a healthy breakfast, lunch and snack. Such policies generate returns for children, families and the entire economy — for example, by allowing more mothers to work and freeing up spending that child-care costs erode.

That’s not all. A child allowance, along the lines of the briefly expanded child tax credit of 2021, would deliver further net economic gains. So would addressing the doubling of maternal mortality in the US, the high out-of-pocket cost of child birth and the lack of paid sick days.

Nobody in Washington wants to deny opportunity to innocent children. So why aren’t conservatives on board with such policies? Given the positive returns, objections about cost aren’t compelling. If the US can afford a $1.9 trillion tax cut, it can afford federal child care, which would cost a quarter as much. The state wouldn’t be encroaching on anyone’s freedom. On the contrary, the vast majority of Americans — not just parents — have said they want paid leave policy, they’re worried about the price and availability of child care, and they want the government to step in.

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The real objection, from Republicans and even some moderate Democrats, is that some of the government largesse might go to parents they consider undeserving. When paid family leave and an expanded child tax credit were being debated as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin reportedly worried privately that parents would buy drugs or go hunting. The character and work ethic of public aid recipients have long been sticking points for the right.

This is a conversation the country needs to have. Let’s assume that Manchin’s worst fears are true. Policies aimed at helping children will enable some parents to buy drugs. Others will be lazy, poor managers of money or outright criminals. Nonetheless, their kids will have a much better chance of getting the care, nourishment and education they need to escape a difficult home life, to overcome circumstances over which they have no control, to realize their full potential.

The question for the U.S:. Do we eschew the monumental investment America needs to make in its children in order to keep money from parents we dislike? So far, the answer has been yes. Satisfying as it might be to avoid the ignominy of sending tax dollars to bad moms or dads, the entire country suffers as a result, in the form of reduced economic mobility and opportunity. If we want a better future, we have to make a better choice and do right by kids this time.

Kathryn Anne Edwards is a labor economist and independent policy consultant. ©2024 Bloomberg. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.