Kids' welfare is key for our economy

  • Article by: ARTHUR ROLNICK and RISA LAVIZZO-MOUREY
  • Updated: December 3, 2012 - 7:17 PM

We can't have a prosperous future without investing in children.

With the elections behind us, we can now refocus on two of America's most pressing challenges: restoring our economy and improving the health and well-being of our children.

Some may not see the connection between these issues. However, speaking jointly as the president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropy dedicated exclusively to health and health care, and as the former research director for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, we see this link clearly.

We cannot achieve significant economic growth without investing in the development of our children. Among 34 major countries, the United States ranks 14th on literacy and 25th on mathematics. And, for the first time, we are raising a generation of children who may live shorter, sicker and less productive lives than their parents. Nearly half of children born into poverty will remain poor throughout childhood. Nearly one-third of poor children will remain impoverished into adulthood.

The disparities in health and education among America's children are striking, and Minnesota is no exception. In Carver County, approximately 6 percent of children live in poverty and 80 percent graduate from high school. But just an hour's drive away, in Ramsey County, 25 percent of children live in poverty and just 67 percent graduate from high school.

Life expectancy disparities around the Twin Cities reflect differences in wealth, education and environment. A three-mile drive along I-94 can mean a 13-year difference in life expectancy. Research shows that people with higher levels of education live longer and healthier lives than those with less education.

Meanwhile, imagine what it would mean to our economy -- and to the health of our nation -- if all our children graduated from high school.

Done right, early childhood development programs that engage parents, even before birth, can make an extraordinary difference in outcomes, both for their children and for society at large. To that end, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation piloted a program that offered early childhood education scholarships for at-risk children. Parents received access to home-visiting mentors and to a four-star program rating system they could use to decide for themselves which would best meet their children's needs.

The results? Higher rates of educational attainment, which research shows lead to lower rates of crime, teen pregnancy and welfare dependency. In fact, data from one major longitudinal study showed a 16 percent annual return on investment, adjusted for inflation.

It's simple: Children who receive high-quality early education are more likely to lead productive and healthy lives, and are less likely to engage in criminal behavior and receive public assistance. That's why it is important to recognize that early childhood development is economic development.

For many years, we have missed this connection because we tend to create policy in silos -- education under one roof, housing and economic development under another, and health under yet another roof. In reality, these policy areas are all interconnected and influence one another.

But we are making progress. Recently, we both had the privilege of taking part in the Minnesota Healthy Communities Conference, hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and Wilder Research. The conference brought together leaders in health, community development, human services and philanthropy to explore the ways we can combine our resources to create healthier communities that enable all Minnesota children to thrive.

We hope that this new cross-sector collaboration will lead to increased long-term investment in early childcare. We call on all those interested in lifting up our economy and future generations to focus their attention here. It will be the smartest investment we will ever make.

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Risa Lavizzo-Mourey is president and chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Arthur Rolnick is a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota and was previously senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

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