The Earlier the Better in Setting Our Children on the Right Course

Editor's Note: Continuing our fall series of guest editors, we are happy to introduce to you this month Jim Koppel, director of the Minnesota Children's Defense Fund.


The Children's Defense Fund of Minnesota has been looking at how we value families today. Families are raising the most precious resource for our future. When they are successful, children are raised in a healthy, loving environment, develop self-esteem, and go on to be productive adults and perhaps parents. If families fail, our future generation of adults is less educated, less productive, less functional, and more inclined to be involved in at-risk behaviors. In short, more likely to fail.

We know that children's first and best chance to succeed is their family. If a family does not provide for the basic needs of a child, it is far more expensive and far less effective for government programs, schools, and social service agencies to provide these needed services for this child. A family is not only safe, nurturing, and loving, it is a great economic investment by society for raising children.

That is why I am concerned about families today. Too many families are struggling and failing. Children are not getting what they need. I am not going to blame anyone in particular for all the complications and dysfunction leading to failure. I am just asking the question: Why do we wait for families to fail before we offer services, before we offer needed assistance, before we offer a safe haven for children? As I mentioned, these responses cost more money and are less effective than when provided by the family. But even more important, the breakup of a family is usually after the children have endured abuse and dysfunction and much of the damage has already been done.

This waiting for failure is known as a "deficit investment"; we spend money or offer services only to replace something that has failed. We have been using this model for years, and it has not turned failure into success. It only salvages what is left.

We need to ensure that families succeed by investing in them now, not later. What does that mean? It means that families should be treated as an asset and placed high on the priority list of public and private actions. We know what helps families succeed: education, economic stability, parents providing structure and spending time with their children, good health care and nourishment, and elimination of parental problems such as excessive stress, physical or mental abuse, and chemical dependency. I would like to offer a few positive, proactive changes that would help more families succeed:


Parents should be ready to parent. Parent education before and after childbirth should be widely available and encouraged. Every parent needs some help and has lots of questions and concerns. When parents require more attention due to economic, social, or other problems, programs such as weekly home visits by a public-health nurse for as long as needed should be offered. These services have been studied for more than fifteen years and are very successful in educating parents and helping to resolve problems families face.

Parental leave policies and tax credits for working parents who choose to stay home should be increased. (The first year of life is so important for a child and parents should be encouraged to spend as much time as possible with him or her. Sick-child policies, pretax childcare accounts and on-site childcare are a few employer-based strategies to help parents and increase employee production, loyalty, and morale. Quality childcare and preschool should be accessible, affordable, and staffed by caring and educated adults who are paid as professionals.


Tax policy should recognize the cost of raising children and that families with children have seen the largest federal income tax rate increase over the last fifty years. Sales taxes and Social Security withholdings unfairly treat families with children because these flat taxes don't allow for any exemptions. These taxes have been increasing and leave families with less income to invest in their children. Federal tax policy relating to deducting childcare expenses has not changed in almost twenty years, while the cost of childcare has more than doubled during that time.

The list could continue: Coordinate the school day and the workday so that children aren't home alone many weekday afternoons. The highest rate of juvenile crime, as well as many other high-risk "activities" that a child may experience with unstructured time alone, occurs during the afternoon hours. Minneapolis and Edina have significantly changed their school days to address that problem.

But the point here is to not to look at how kids will fail. It's to look at how families will succeed, to look at the necessary shift in priorities and investments we must make before a family fails. Parents want to raise their children well. Let us all work together to help them succeed.