Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Stimulus with Staying Power


By Lauren Waits

The American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 was signed amid a flurry of speculation over its scope and impact. Questions persist about how Americans in general will benefit through federal stimulus spending for infrastructure and transportation projects, job creation and state budget stabilization. Little has been said, however, about the one population who could benefit the most from the package and provide a return to long-term growth: children.

We know that the early years are critical to a child’s healthy development. Neuroscientists can now show us that the quality of children's earliest experiences shape their brain architecture in permanent ways-for better and for worse. So when children, especially high risk children, receive care that is nurturing, supportive and based on their unique needs early on, we can put them on a course for success over their lifetimes. Key provisions of the stimulus bill contain investments designed to assure that infants, toddlers and preschoolers get what they need to thrive.

It's now up to us to make sure these available funds are deployed correctly for maximum impact and return on that investment. Our youngest children depend on three groups -- parents, businesses and the state – to claim their share of the stimulus funds and ensure their ability to contribute to a renewed nation as they grow.

Some money will flow directly to families through tax credits. Parents of very young children are often in the early stages of their own careers and earn significantly less than parents of older children. The families of approximately 540,000 children in Georgia will become newly eligible for sliding scale tax credits of up to $1,000 per child. These funds can help to put a more nutritious meal on the table, support the family in choosing a higher quality child care provider, or allow a parent to take a few hours off work for a child's visit to the doctor or dentist.

Also, communities and small businesses such as child care providers can apply for expanded Head Start and Early Head Start resources. The Act emphasizes Early Head Start, which assist both parents and children from birth up to age four by providing home visitation, health and developmental screenings and quality child care in a variety of settings. Expansions should be directed to the areas of most intense need in Georgia, and Bright from the Start (Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning) is well-positioned to identify vulnerable populations of young children. With Head Start providers already in place from Alapaha to Willacoochee, Georgia has a sound framework for expansion.

The state itself is the third entity that needs to channel stimulus funds to programs supporting young children. Governor Sonny Perdue and School Superintendent Kathy Cox can direct some of Georgia's $1.28 billion in fiscal stabilization funds to school modernization, renovation or repair. Many school systems have waiting lists for Georgia PreK because they lack the physical space. Schools seeking to serve more four-year-olds in PreK should receive favorable consideration as projects are approved. The flexibility in additional education funding provided through the Act should also allow Governor Perdue to restore his proposed $30 million cut to the school nurse program. Georgia will also receive stimulus funds for special education through IDEA grants, with a portion set aside specifically for infants and toddlers.

As an added measure, the stimulus will provide Georgia with $82.8 million to subsidize child care for low income working families. Georgia's child care subsidy program has never been able to serve all the families who are eligible. These new dollars can help eliminate waiting lists for services and expand the eligibility level so more parents can be assured of safe, healthy environments for their children while they go to work.

We all know this massive spending increase will need to be paid back at some point by future generations; essentially today's young people. Done right, the investments we make today on our youngest people can serve as a sizeable down payment on that debt and we'll be putting them in a much better position to capitalize upon it down the road.
Waits is policy director for Voices for Georgia’s Children.
Copyright (C) 2009 by the Georgia Forum. 3/09