Chicago Sun-Times, April 8, 2008: America should invest in the ‘front side of life’

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Even as we marked the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination and the remarkable way he and his movement transformed America, we learned also of the work still undone.

As the memorial march in Memphis took place, papers published the harsh realities of this country: high, growing dropout rates, staggering rates of young African-American and Latino men in jail for nonviolent crimes. Planners now project future prison cell needs on the basis of third-grade reading scores. Dr. King’s war on poverty was lost, as he predicted, to the cost of wars aboard. Forty years ago, it was Vietnam. Today, it is Iraq, costing $12 billion a month, and more than $1 trillion in total costs and counting.

Isn’t it time for a new consensus, a new movement of conscience, a new policy agenda? We should be investing big time on the front side of life: prenatal care, child care, preschool, children’s health care, small classes in early grades, special tutors, and special summer programs

We know this works. Early health care means children who are stronger, less susceptible to disease, more able to learn. Early parent education, child care and pre-K help prepare children for school, making them more ready to learn. Smaller classes — particularly in the early years and in the poorest neighborhoods — enable teachers to provide the special attention needed for children growing up in rough neighborhoods.

We know this saves money. Healthier children save millions in treating them on the backside, as they get older. Children ready and able to learn save billions on the cost of prison cells, crime, police and unemployment.

There really isn’t a conservative or a liberal opposition to this reality. Conservatives want parents to be responsible, so they should support parental education. They believe in the sanctity of life; they can hardly object to insuring that young children get the health care and education they need for a healthy start in life. Conservatives worry about the undeserving poor, those on welfare who take advantage of society’s safety net. But children surely are the most deserving: still innocent, still full of potential that we should help them have a chance to realize.

Yet we’re headed the other way. The children’s health care bill to extend guaranteed health care to millions of uncovered children was vetoed. With state and city budgets getting cut, schools are laying off teachers and expanding classes, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. Pre-K is spreading in some states, but slowly, often crippled by budget constraints. Adequate nutrition, secure housing and safe neighborhoods are getting harder to achieve, not easier.

This country is headed into troubled waters. We are fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’re sustaining — in addition to those — the world’s greatest military force, with an empire of bases across the world. At the same time, our economy is headed down, unemployment is rising, and wages aren’t keeping up with costs. The dollar is sinking, but we’re still either borrowing or selling off assets at the rate of $2 billion a day to pay for goods and services imported from abroad. We’re now sending more dollars abroad for what we owe than we earn abroad from what we’ve invested in. Our budget deficit will grow, but our investment deficit is growing faster.

Choices have to be made. The easiest choice — the choice that Dr. King dedicated his life to protest — is to abandon the poor and the young, “the least of these.” Yet the measure of our character as a people is exactly how we treat “the least of these.”

It is time for a new crusade for children. Let us choose to invest on the front side of life; it will save us billions on the backside financially. And it will tap potential that now is too easily discarded.

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