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Investing in Children's Basic Needs


Cheryl Suliteanu

"The Heckman Equation" is a simple one: "Make greater investments in young children to see greater returns in education, health, and productivity." When something seems so simple, it can be frustrating how hard it is to convince others of its worth.

Policymakers need to recognize that children are not responsible for the conditions of their birth, and should not be held accountable for their parents' mistakes.

The best way to interrupt the cycle of poverty is to support children's physical, socio-emotional, and educational needs. When children are hungry or sad or scared, they cannot develop positive relationships, grow strong bodies and healthy immune systems, or develop appropriate reasoning skills. By the time they are school-aged, these children are already in a deficit mode compared to their more privileged peers.

Two years ago, Sam joined my kindergarten class midway through the year. He had poor communication skills and trouble paying attention. He fell asleep nearly every day, and cried at the slightest of issues.

I could tell from my interactions with Sam's family that their economic situation was bleak. But I had no idea what Sam had been through.

Early on, I had noticed that Sam ate so slowly he almost never got a chance to play. One day, when all the other children had come in, he had not yet finished his sandwich, so I told him he had to pack it back up and come inside. He screamed, grabbing his lunch bag from me.

What I learned was that until very recently, Sam's family had been homeless, living in shelters or on the streets. The next meal was never certain. Hunger, poor hygiene, no regular sleep cycle, never knowing where he'd be staying the night ... how could anyone expect this sweet child to pay attention in class?

For the last two years, Sam has lived in a stable home with food, family, and access to health care. He is now meeting grade-level standards and has positive relationships with his peers because he can handle minor issues with age-appropriate responses.

His greatest learning disability turned out to be poverty.

Sam was fortunate, compared to many children. His extended family was able to provide the safety net he needed. But about a quarter of America's children live in poverty.

What if we invested more in students' basic needs?

Current funding for families in poverty is called "child support"—our next step is ensuring that money goes directly to the children. What if states created a system in which children receive health and wellness care at state medical centers, without the actual exchange of money? Or even better, what if major corporations, insurance companies, and healthcare providers chose to invest in children, rather than stock portfolios?

Cheryl Suliteanu is a National Board-certified teacher and has has taught elementary school students in Oceanside, Calif. for 17 years.

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