When she worked several years ago in the child welfare system, Saskia Epstein’s job was to provide services to kids who, in her words, had “fallen off a cliff.”  They experienced emotional problems, were disengaged from school, and came from dysfunctional families.

More recently, as executive director of the Boston office of Room to Grow, her goal was instead to “build fences” so that kids will not ever get close to the edge of a cliff.

The key is to intervene as early as possible. A 2009 study by the nonpartisan research center Child Trends points to staggering gaps in babies’ development that are related to family income and which are apparent within the first year of life.  Room to Grow consequently strives to enrich the lives of babies born into low-income families.  From the time expecting mothers learn about the organization during their third trimester, the focus is on promoting the baby’s physical, emotional, and cognitive development and enabling parents to gain the skills and confidence they need to successfully nurture their kids throughout childhood.

Every three months until the child turns 3, parents meet with a social worker who answers questions and provides child-rearing tips as well as offers clothes, toys, books, and other material supports.  The social worker also makes referrals – to other child enrichment programs like Early Head Start or to places that can provide services to alleviate problems such as unemployment, homelessness, or domestic abuse that can severely impact parents’ capacity to do their job properly.

Supporting enrichment from birth for kids whose development will otherwise be scarred by the effects of poverty is one of the best investments we can make.  Every dollar spent to help low-income kids avert what psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley call ”the early catastrophe” can save as much as $13 in the future.  These investments reduce the chance that a child will someday become pregnant, drop out of school, abuse drugs, or go to prison; they simultaneously increase the likelihood that this person will become a productive contributor to society.  Not making these investments will, according to University of Chicago economist and Nobel Prize recipient James Heckman, have disastrous impacts on our country’s economic productivity since so many people will not become productive contributors to the workforce.  Investing in early childhood, plain and simple, makes good sense.

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