KRISTOF: For second term, start with toddlers
Published: Monday, January 28, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 7:19 p.m.
Point to a group of toddlers in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in the U.S., and it's a good bet that they will go to college, buy nice houses and enjoy white-collar careers.
Point to a group of toddlers in a low-income neighborhood, and — especially if they're boys — they're much more likely to end up dropping out of school, struggling in dead-end jobs and having trouble with the law.
Something is profoundly wrong when we can point to 2-year-olds in this country and make a plausible bet about their long-term outcomes — not based on their brains and capabilities, but on their ZIP codes.
Since President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty,” the United States has spent some $16 trillion or more on means-tested programs. Yet the proportion of Americans living beneath the poverty line, 15 percent, is higher than in the late 1960s in the Johnson administration.
What accounts for the cycles of poverty that leave so many people mired in the margins, and how can we break these cycles?
Neuman and Celano focus on two neighborhoods in Philadelphia. In largely affluent Chestnut Hill, most children have access to personal computers and the shops have eight children's books or magazines on sale for each child living there.
Take a 20-minute bus ride on Germantown Avenue and you're in the Philadelphia Badlands, a low-income area inhabited mostly by working-class blacks and
On top of that, there's a difference in parenting strategies, the writers say. Upper-middle-class parents in the U.S. increasingly engage in competitive child-rearing.
Meanwhile, partly by necessity, working-class families often take a more hands-off attitude to child-raising.
When I was a third-grader, a friend struggling in school once went with me to the library, and my mother helped him get a library card. His grandmother then made him return it immediately, for fear that he would run up library fines.
The upshot is that many low-income children never reach the starting line, and poverty becomes self-replicating.
Maybe that's why some of the most cost-effective anti-poverty programs are aimed at the earliest years. For example, the Nurse-Family Partnership has a home-visitation program that encourages new parents of at-risk children to amp up the hugging, talking and reading. It ends at age 2, yet randomized trials show that those children are less likely to be arrested as teenagers and the families require much less government assistance.
Or take Head Start. Critics have noted that the advantage its preschoolers gain in test scores fades by third grade, but scholars also have found that Head Start has important impacts on graduates, including lessening the chance that they will be convicted of a crime years later.
James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, argues that the most crucial investments we as a country can make are in the first five years of life, and that they pay for themselves.
We don't have any magic bullets.
So, Mr. President, to fulfill the vision for your second term, how about redeploying the resources we've spent on the war in Afghanistan to undertake nation-building at home — starting with children so that they will no longer be limited by their ZIP codes.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for the New York Times.
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