Opinion

Investing in the Young

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Joanna Selena was born five days after the building that would have been her first home burned to the ground.

Her parents lost almost everything they owned in the five-alarm fire that ravaged Mount Pleasant in late March. So business, community and city leaders joined forces to make sure Joanna's basic needs were met during her vulnerable first weeks. The neighborhood organized a baby shower, catered by local restaurants and hosted by the owners of Pfeiffer's Hardware.

As The Washington Times reported, the outpouring of sympathy for the Selena family, as well as some 80 other families left homeless by the fire, is heartwarming - but it isn't nearly enough. All sectors of society including business have a role to play to ensure that children grow up to be productive adults. Providing parents with better tools to raise their children - including intensive mentoring for at-risk parents and opportunities to send their 3- and 4-year-olds to high-quality pre-kindergarten - has been shown to reduce crime and delinquency, lower rates of teen pregnancy and lead to greater employment and higher wages as adults. It has been estimated the return on early childhood programs ranges from $3 to $17 for every $1 invested. Whether the issue is safer housing, access to healthier foods or better prenatal health for mothers, a growing body of research indicates investing in children during the earliest years of their lives yields high returns for our economy.

This week the Partnership for America's Economic Success, a group of corporate, foundation and individual funders that commission research on the connection between early childhood development and long-term economic success, will release a report documenting the damaging effects of bad housing on very young children. The ultimate goal of the Partnership, meeting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce here this week, is to make the success of every child the nation's top economic priority.

Increasingly, business leaders recognize the economic value of investments in young children. But children will become a top economic priority only when all sectors decide to make policy decisions based on return on investment.

The truth is that the building in which Joanna would have lived was far from ideal for an infant. Complaints of mold, water damage, rat and bug infestations, plumbing failures and lax security had earned the apartment complex 7,100 housing code violations since 2004.

Additional harm may have been done as the mostly low-income families displaced by the fire bounced from temporary shelter in hotels and on friends' couches to more permanent housing. The long-term consequences of lack of safe, adequate housing for young children are as real for the nation's economy as they are for the kids in question: Research suggests young children subjected to multiple moves when they're very young are 13 percent less likely to graduate from high school, with dramatic implications for future employment.

Unfortunately, between 2006 and 2017, the share of the federal budget dedicated to children is projected to decline by 29 percent.

While the kinds of charitable contributions and volunteer efforts that Mount Pleasant provided are indispensable, America's children demand a more substantial commitment. The stakes are high: our decision to invest or disinvest in children has the potential to expand or constrain our nation's economy in the decades to come. Business leaders with the courage to lend their voices to policy debates about investments in young children can help ensure that Joanna and her peers have access to proper housing, nutrition and other supports while their bodies and minds are in their earliest stages of development.

We know what it takes to put young children on the right path. Now we all need to act to make it happen.

Rebecca Rimel is president and CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which manages the Partnership for America's Economic Success. Robert Dugger, managing director of Tudor Investment Cor., is advisory board chairman for the Partnership.