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Column: Vermont’s best investment is in its children and its families



For the Valley News
Thursday, April 18, 2019

It is budget season in Montpelier. Legislators must feel like mother birds returning to their nests: lots of hungry, upturned mouths. Resources are always scarce, and no one is eager to pay higher taxes.

Our representatives ought to lean on three principles as they allocate scarce funds. First, pay for commitments that have already been made. Second, protect the most vulnerable Vermonters. And third, direct funds to places where they will have the largest payoff in the years to come.

By all of these metrics, Vermont’s Parent Child Centers deserve robust support.

Fund existing commitments

The network of 15 nonprofit Parent Child Centers was designated 30 years ago by the Legislature as an innovative way to address the needs of vulnerable Vermont families and children. Each center delivers eight core services, such as parenting classes, home visits and supervised playgroups.

The focus is on promoting family safety and stability, thereby ensuring that all children get off to a healthy start.

The challenges for Vermont’s Parent Child Centers have grown significantly while their budgets have not. When inflation is taken into account, the centers are getting less funding than they were 30 years ago, even as they wrestle with new challenges, particularly the devastating effect that the opioid crisis is having on families.

Vermont’s Parent Child Centers deliver crucial state services and do it in a way that has been proven to be effective. The network has been nationally recognized as the best way to deliver services to young families and at-risk children. But how long can they meet the challenges of 2020 on a budget created for the Reagan era?

Protect, strengthen the vulnerable

Parent Child Centers work with children who have undergone adverse experiences in their young lives. The research is clear that early childhood trauma has a lifelong impact. It even changes the circuitry of the brain.

Vermont’s Parent Child Centers help young people overcome that kind of adversity. More than that, they work to prevent it in the first place. The centers use a two-generation approach, helping parents with education, jobs and life skills while also supporting their young children.

Children do well when their parents do well. That is the secret ingredient to their own future success — in school, at work and, eventually, as parents themselves.

Reduce future social costs

Helping vulnerable families now means less poverty and distress in future generations.

James Heckman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics, has concluded that investments in high-quality early childhood interventions have a higher rate of return than almost any other form of government spending.

I had the privilege of working with Heckman as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Heckman is a hard-nosed, quantitative economist. He was among the first to recognize that every $1 spent on high-quality early intervention can produce $7 or more in social benefits.

No hedge fund manager in America can deliver those kinds of returns.

This should not be a great surprise. Investments in vulnerable children last a lifetime; they make all subsequent investments in education and health care more productive. How do we maximize what we get for our spending on K-12 education? By ensuring that children enter school ready to learn.

We know that prevention is always cheaper than treatment. The result of investments in parents and children is less addiction, lower health care costs, decreased incarceration rates, stronger families and communities, and more productive Vermont citizens for generations to come.

Not everyone is going to get what they want from Montpelier this session. Scarce resources ought to go where they will make the biggest difference. That means directing them to some of our littlest people and their families.

Charles Wheelan, of Hanover, teaches public policy at the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College. He is a board member at The Family Place in Norwich.