Monday, February 23, 2009

An Economic Stimulus That Keeps on Giving


By Pat Willis

Like most states, Georgia is in the midst of budget cutting and juggling finances to stay afloat. This is a reality and it is important now to maintain a solid foundation for future growth when better times return. And they will.

But how can we as a country and a state make this long-term debt pay off for future generations rather than burdening our children and grandchildren with payments for years to come?

Even in the best of times, Georgia's children haven’t fared well, and it does not bode well for Georgia's future economic growth. Ranking at No. 40 according to the 2008 Kids Count report issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, health, education, safety, and employability outcomes have consistently ranked among the lowest in the country. If a healthy portion of potential spending is devoted to strategic investments in our children, we could set in motion an economic stimulus that may keep paying us a healthy return for decades to come.

Let's take a look at what a stimulus package might look like in terms of Georgia’s priorities.

Education and Child Care
Thousands of children are on waiting lists for Pre-Kindergarten education (Pre-K), which builds a foundation for higher educational achievement, in turn creating higher earning potential. However, participation in Georgia’s lottery-funded Pre-K program has never exceeded 56 percent.

President Obama’s $10 billion investment in early learning is a significant leap of faith, but it remains to be seen how that program will be implemented. The economic stimulus package can build quality centers and increase available slots, while existing lottery reserve funds can support operations without additional taxpayer or federal dollars.

With about 300,000 Georgia mothers of children under 6 years old currently in the workforce, and 14,000 families on waiting lists for Georgia child care subsidies, how can we expect a productive, reliable workforce? Research shows that just $1 invested in a high quality child care program resulted in a public benefit of $7.16. If we consolidate child care and Pre-K in the state, we potentially infuse $2.4 billion in gross receipts into the economy, and support $13.6 billion in parental earnings.

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, occur among 0-6 year olds. Home visitation and other family supports could greatly ameliorate this problem, save child welfare dollars down the road, and strengthen family self sufficiency in the short and long run.

Georgia’s health coverage for children ranks in the bottom third of states in terms of access and quality. About 300,000 of Georgia’s children are uninsured and vulnerable. Georgia’s State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), “PeachCare for Kids,” designed to insure children in working families, is at risk of losing its funding in March if Congress or the state doesn’t act quickly. Federal legislation recently signed off on by the president to re-authorize and expand SCHIP should help more children get the coverage they need.

Juvenile Justice
In 2006, 2,631 Georgia children were in juvenile correctional facilities on any given day, enough children for over 100 classrooms. Georgia’s Juvenile Code, which delineates the procedures by which the Juvenile Court addresses delinquent children, is disorganized, difficult to apply to contemporary situations, and needs to be updated in short order.

These are some of the most pressing needs that will only cost the state in the long term if we do nothing. We need to be smart. It is essential to embrace the idea of tax dollars spent on children, not as an expense, but as an investment that saves money later, and most importantly, ultimately generates tax revenues from healthy, productive adults.

If our state and federal governments are committed to spending hundreds of billions of our tax dollars on infrastructure as a means of economic stimulus, why not demand that they look beyond physical roads and bridges? After all, children make up the foundation – infrastructure, if you will – 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.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Georgia Editorial Forum. 2/09