Ky. Voices: Fight child poverty with early education, family support

Vaughn Nebbitt, children's services coordinator, helped 4-year-old D'Asia Sweat Nathaniel last fall on the computer during her Head Start class at the Russell School Community Services Center in Lexington.
Vaughn Nebbitt, children's services coordinator, helped 4-year-old D'Asia Sweat Nathaniel last fall on the computer during her Head Start class at the Russell School Community Services Center in Lexington. Herald-Leader

It's as if we've forgotten that children are vulnerable. That they can't speak for themselves. That they need our help.

Right now, there are 16.4 million children living in poor families in America, including 7.4 million living in extreme poverty. In Kentucky 31.6 percent of children younger than 5 live in poverty and 16.3 percent of children younger than 5 live in extreme poverty, according to U.S. Census data.

The situation is equally disturbing in Lexington, where Census data show that approximately 4,635 children younger than 5 live in poverty. These children live next door to you. They attend school and church with your children. And sometimes they go hungry.

Some have tried to reduce poverty in America down to a group of spoiled folks who claim lack of money but still have smart phones (never mind that such items are often necessary to function in our culture). But poverty is real here. For a family of four, it means living on $23,050 a year or less.

In 2010, according to the Children's Defense Fund's annual The State of America's Children handbook, one in nine children lived in households that couldn't afford enough food for everyone.

In Kentucky, 22.3 percent of families reported an incident in the past 12 months when they skipped a meal because they couldn't afford to eat.

It will take a multi-pronged effort to beat this beast and it starts with each of us deciding it's unacceptable.

We are watching millions of children fail to get the right beginning in life while some policymakers and talking heads bicker over federal spending for critical programs such as Head Start preschool.

Head Start, a proven family and child development initiative that has helped millions of children start school right for close to 50 years, fails only in its inability to serve all eligible kids due to lack of sufficient resources.

Universal pre-kindergarten is a critical step for Kentucky in erasing educational deficits at all socioeconomic levels, but it is particularly important for poor children. And the need starts earlier than preschool. Early development brain research shows critical development happens from birth to three but federal spending on Early Head Start — which serves children in that age group — is grossly inadequate.

Only one in three eligible infants and toddlers are able to enroll in Early Head Start nationally due to lack of available funding.

Community Action Council, the Early Head Start provider for Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison, Nicholas and Scott counties, has found in its community needs assessment that 3,582 children are eligible for the program but the organization only has resources to serve 329.

This is unfortunate as research published in 2012 by the Brookings Institution demonstrates that without a high-quality, early-childhood experience children are:

25 percent more likely to drop out of school.

50 percent more likely to be placed in special education.

60 percent more likely to never attend college.

70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.

And combating poverty through early childhood education is more than just getting children into a classroom. It requires a commitment to hiring skilled educators and utilizing research-based classroom instruction. It takes much more than reading a story or playing dress-up to ensure that nearly all children entering kindergarten are ready to be there.

Classrooms and teachers must be continually assessed for effectiveness and child outcomes assessments must be used to evaluate programming. Community Action Council's Head Start programs all do this and in 2012 found that 90 percent of their four-year-olds entered Central Kentucky kindergartens ready to learn.

Those results don't happen without also making significant investment in families. For children from families with low income this means providing support in the form of child nutrition, educational and employment development for the parents, health screenings and treatment, and so much more.

Only Head Start provides this experience for families with low incomes. It is a model that should be expanded and replicated, not unfairly criticized and hacked with a budget axe.

Kentucky policymakers will fail to address child poverty if they do not consider these elements as the state moves forward in a conversation about universal pre-K.

From there, we need to continue ensuring world-class public education and comprehensive support for children and their families.

This is the only logical answer if we agree that children should start life on a level playing field. And it's what these children would ask of you if they could speak for themselves.