Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Is Iraq ahead of children in the war on priorities?

Dr. Richard Chase, who has led much of Wilder’s early childhood research, has mentioned that preschool children are among the people most likely to live in poverty and to lack health care in the United States.

Yet, ensuring all children have health care and/or supporting their early learning would cost less than the $340 million that we spend each day on the Iraq war. I challenge us to consider how we collectively establish priorities and to try to understand why war is apparently more important than the well-being of our children.

At Wilder Research, we have focused a lot of attention on early childhood issues, early education, and child care for preschool children. We know that children who lag behind their first five years stay behind.

Demographically, many of the children on whom our nation’s future depends come from racially and ethnically diverse families; many live in low income, urban neighborhoods. Research shows these children are most at risk for failing. Improving the early learning experiences of these children Dr. Chase stresses, requires the development of approaches that are “targeted, tailored, and comprehensive.”

“Targeting” our approaches means that we must direct greater attention to children and communities where needs are highest, and less attention to children and communities where needs are lowest.

“Tailoring” means that whatever we do should fit the cultural preferences of children and their families. We should take steps to eliminate obstacles that can arise from language, literacy, and other aspects of children’s lives.

“Comprehensive” means that we must take steps to improve the social and economic conditions of children and their families, not just the ways that we care for children. Larger conditions, if negative, can often undo the positive effects of quality care provided by either families or formal caregivers.

Implicit in the recommendations of Dr. Chase is the need for collaboration and “co-creation” of the specific activities employed to improve the quality of life of children, their families, and their communities. We may need to establish some universal policies, standards, and mandates. However, as long as local communities can work within them, respectful of the basic rights of children, they can shape their own activities to best align with their cultural expectations.

That brings us to policy questions; it returns me to the question in the title.

Set aside your feelings about the war for a moment. Whether we should have started it, whether we should continue the war or pull out of Iraq - these are topics for another discussion, another blog. My point is that Democrats (including one of the leading Presidential candidates) and Republicans joined together to vote to invade Iraq, remove its leader, and attempt to establish a democratic government and improve the well-being of Iraqis.

The fact is that we did enter the war. Someone somewhere decided that we should spend hundreds of millions of dollars per day on this effort. Our legislators (that same “someone”) have decided that they cannot join forces across parties to ensure that all of our children in the United States have health care and that they all receive the preparation they need to succeed in school.

How does that happen?

According to February 2008 data from the Congressional Research Service, the Iraq War costs us at least $340 million dollars per day; that’s about $124 billion, yes billion, dollars per year. You can add to that a recent estimate from a RAND Corporation study that we will spend $6.2 billion dollars in costs related to veterans who return from this war with post traumatic stress syndrome during the first two years after they return.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a good estimate of the total cost of providing health care to all children under 18 would be approximately $88 billion dollars per year. The cost of health care only for children under 5 might be $25 billion. Note that this is the cost. It is not necessarily what government (the taxpayers) would pay; funding for much of this could come via sliding fees, if for example, we want employed parents to contribute toward the cost of their children’s health care. In the case of war, on the other hand, the taxpayers pay the full bill.

The Committee for Economic Development is an independent research and policy organization of some 250 business leaders and educators. CED is nonprofit, nonpartisan, and nonpolitical. Its purpose is “to propose policies that bring about steady economic growth at high employment and reasonably stable prices, increased productivity and living standards, greater and more equal opportunity for every citizen, and an improved quality of life for all.” These business leaders, who include board chairs and CEOs of major U.S. corporations, estimate that preschool for all of our children might cost $33 to $41 billion each year.

So, $124 billion per year for war in Iraq (not including other billions for Afghanistan, other military operations, etc.); $88 billion or less, for children’s health care; $41 billion for preschool education.

Whether intentional or not, we have established priorities which put spending for Iraq ahead of spending for our children. A bipartisan decision was made that invading Iraq had higher priority than providing health care to all children in the United States or providing high quality preschool education to all children in the United States.

To me, the continuation of democracy depends on having skilled, educated members of our society who will lead our communities, work in our businesses, raise healthy children, and do everything else that's necessary to maintain the strength of a nation.

Lack of school readiness imperils our freedom, in the long run, probably more than any danger in Iraq. Loss of competitiveness weakens our businesses; it can make us losers in the global marketplace; it will threaten our well-being more than Sadam Hussein ever had the faintest chance of doing.

A recent article in The New York Times noted Bill Gates’ statement that he is “terrified for our work force of tomorrow”. Although his fears stem primarily from the condition of our high schools which in his words “cannot teach all our students what they need to know today”, critical determinants of academic performance exist in the earliest years of life and must be addressed long before high school.

Again, we can separately debate the pros and cons of invading Iraq. I just wonder why such an invasion, followed by many years of military action in that country, has higher priority than health care and education in our own country and local communities. If you have thoughts, I welcome them.