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The economics of caring: KIDS COUNT speaker says 'there is a great return on investment in kids'

There was a well-known experiment in the late 1960s that tested kids' self-control by giving them the choice to eat one marshmallow right away, or two marshmallows if they could wait 15 minutes. During the wait, each child was left alone in a room with nothing to do but think about the marshmallow in front of him or her. That wait must have felt like an eternity to those kids, and some inevitably caved and ate the marshmallow. They knew their reward would be greater if they could just wait 15 minutes, but they gave in to instant gratification, instead.

Ben Horowitz, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, uses this experiment as an analogy for how the government tends to fund early childhood programming. The "marshmallows" are dollars that can be spent, and the "kids" are lawmakers: Their spending is often short-sighted—sufficient enough only to meet some immediate needs rather than enough to result in lasting, long-term gains into the future.

"We know that if we invest in early childhood now, we will see the rewards later on," Horowitz said. "But we often fall short."

Horowitz was in Detroit Lakes on Wednesday to speak at a Minnesota KIDS COUNT gathering hosted by the Becker County Early Childhood Initiative. Jennifer Bertram, the KIDS COUNT coordinator for the Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota, also spoke, as did Liz Kuoppala, the director of Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership.

The event was attended by about 30 local stakeholders in early child care, including child care providers, children's healthcare workers, social services professionals, nonprofit directors and other community leaders.

The speakers spoke separately and on slightly different topics, but in the end the message was clear: investing in young children results in social and economic benefits, and the public will see a significant return on any such investment.

One study Horowitz used to illustrate this point tracked 123 children from low-income families in Michigan over 40 years. Of those children, about half were randomly selected to attend a high-quality preschool program with well-trained teachers, daily classroom sessions and weekly home visits that kept parents involved. The other half acted as a control group, and did not attend the high-quality preschool.

Over the years, the kids who attended the high-quality preschool performed significantly better in school, had higher graduation rates and earned higher wages. As adults, more of them had savings accounts and owned their own homes than those who were in the control group, and there were far fewer arrests among them.

Though the higher-quality preschool involved a cost to the public, it turned out that what was spent up front was repaid down the road—and then some—in terms of contributions made by those kids later in life.

As adults, many of the kids who had been part of the control group received welfare payments and cost the justice system because of their arrests, while those who attended the high-quality preschool ended up putting more money into the local economy with their higher wages and home ownerships.

Ultimately, it was found that the public got back as much as $16 for every dollar spent on the high-quality preschool program. More conservative estimates still put the rate of return at 10 percent.

Other studies have linked quality early child care programming to a reduction in child abuse and neglect, fewer emergency room visits, reduced special education needs, reduced employee absenteeism and turnover, and fewer low-weight and preterm births.

"There is a great return on investment in kids," said Horowitz.

In Minnesota, public investment comes in the form of the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), Head Start, scholarships and public school pre-kindergarten programs.

These investments, Horowitz said, are falling short of meeting needs, with about 12,000 children currently on a waiting list for CCAP and another estimated 8,400 families who would benefit from the program but aren't even on the list. There's a 1,000-child-long waiting list for scholarships, too, and available scholarship dollars only serve about 1/5 of all the kids who are eligible.

Statistics on the family situations of kids in Minnesota are alarming. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, 24 percent of adults surveyed in 2013 said they grew up in a household where someone had a drinking problem. Twenty-eight percent reported experiencing emotional abuse as kids, 16 percent physical abuse, and 10 percent sexual abuse. Fourteen percent had witnessed domestic violence, 17 percent lived with someone with a mental illness, and the list goes on.

Bertram shared a slew of additional statistics from the most recent data compiled by KIDS COUNT, including some local figures. In Becker County, she said, 16.5 percent of children are living in poverty, more than the state average of 13 percent. The rate of kids being abused and neglected in Becker County is also higher than the state average, more than double it, in fact, at 10.2 kids per 1,000 (compared to 4.6 per 1,000 statewide).

Kids with these "adverse childhood experiences," as they're called, are at increased risk of a long list of negative effects throughout their lives, including depression, anxiety, obesity and many others.

"We've had a lot of sobering data in front of us," said Kuoppala near the conclusion of the gathering. "We have a long way to go, but we also have a lot of things that are working right."

She said she sees some good things happening in Becker County, such as partnerships—like Becker County Energize—that focus on community wellness and are becoming models for the rest of the state. There have also been recent efforts by Mahube-Otwa to address racial disparities in education. And at the state legislature, she's seen recent efforts to improve protections for young children.

As more and more research comes out on brain development, Horowitz said, it's become clear that a child's earliest years are crucial: the development of language skills and higher cognitive functions peaks within the first one to three years of life.

Horowitz said the views expressed during his presentation were his own, but the studies and facts he shared are a part of his work with the Federal Reserve Bank. While the Bank may seem like an odd bedfellow to early child care, he explained that early childhood research is essential to the Bank's primary goal for community development—to promote fair access to credit and economic growth.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

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