Lesson for legislators: Don't forget the children|
by Pat Willis
Georgia Online News Service
After a year of rising unemployment, a housing market crash, credit crisis and diminishing tax revenue, it's hard to imagine that anyone was sad to see 2008 go.
Georgia, like other states, begins a new year with budget woes that could mean deep cuts in vital programs and services. There's no way around it. But it's important in these tough times to maintain a solid foundation for future growth when the economy improves.
President Barack Obama and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue have outlined bold economic stimulus packages that include large-scale spending on infrastructure. Given the current global outlook, these are important moves to create jobs. But how can we, as a country and a state, make this long-term debt pay off for future generations?
If a healthy portion of the spending is devoted to strategic investments in our children, we could set in motion an economic stimulus that will benefit Georgians for decades to come.
Even in the best of times, Georgia's children haven't fared well. Their health, education, safety and employment prospects consistently rate among the lowest in the country. Georgia ranked 40th in meeting its children's needs, according to the 2008 Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
That ranking doesn't bode well for Georgia's economic growth. But we can do a better job of preparing for the future if consumers, educators, business leaders, clergy and legislators step up for our children. Let's take a look at what a stimulus package might look like in terms of priorities:
Education: Pre-Kindergarten builds a foundation for higher educational achievement, which in turn creates higher earning potential. President Obama's recent proposal for a $10 billion investment in early learning is a significant leap of faith, but it remains to be seen how that program will be implemented.
Georgia's lottery-funded Pre-K program hasn't met its original promise to 4-year olds. Thousands of children are on waiting lists for available slots. Using the economic stimulus package to build quality Pre-K centers will increase enrollment.
Child care: With about 300,000 Georgia mothers of children under 6 in the workforce and 14,000 families on waiting lists for child care subsidies, how can we expect a productive, reliable workforce? We should invest in high-quality child care programs, which will allow more parents to work and pay taxes.
Child abuse prevention: Georgia's children must be safe, especially in their own homes. Yet, 50 percent of Georgia's abuse and neglect cases, close to 20,000 cases in 2005, involve children 6 years old or younger. Increasedc funding for home visitation and other forms of family support could greatly ameliorate this problem, save child welfare dollars down the road, and help families become more self-sufficient.
Health: Studies show accessible, consistent medical care helps kids grow up to be healthy, productive adults. But about 300,000 Georgia children are uninsured and vulnerable. Access to and the quality of health care for Georgia's young ranks in the bottom third of states nationally. Worse yet, the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), "PeachCare for Kids", which is designed to insure children in working families who don't have medical insurance, is at risk of losing its funding in March if congress or the state don't act quickly to appropriate more money
These are some of the most pressing needs that will cost the state more in the long term if we do nothing. We need to be smart. If our governments are committed to spending hundreds of billions of tax dollars on infrastructure to stimulate the economy, why don't we demand that they look beyond roads and bridges?
After all, children make up the foundation - the infrastructure - of our society's future prospects that can be the highway for global competitiveness and economic growth. We can't afford to panic now. Let's stimulate the economy and, at the same time, stimulate prospects for our kids with smart investment.
Pat Willis is executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. [full bio]