Some 3,000 Gila County children have pliable little brains.
Don’t be alarmed: They’re under 5, their brains are supposed to be growing.
But that means nutrition, stimulus, bright colors, intimate relationships, quality of day care and a host of other factors will shape the brains of infants — with long-term consequences for society.
In fact, research suggests that $1 invested in early childhood services yields $4 to $16 in later savings on special education, welfare and juvenile justice costs.
That’s why the local office of the statewide First Things First initiative showed up at last week’s Payson Town Council meeting to listen as the town declared April 22-28 the “Week of the Young Child.”
Unfortunately, Gila County children have seen deep cuts in state-funded help in providing health care and day care in the face of an alarming rise in child poverty rates.
The Gila Regional Council doles out $1 million annually to provide services for young children, including subsidies for high quality day care, early literacy programs, in-home services for struggling families and mental health services.
The money for the statewide First Things First program comes from a voter-approved initiative that imposed an 80-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes to mitigate the social impact of smoking. State/federal programs like the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) spend millions annually to provide care for people suffering diseases related to smoking.
The initiative since 2009 has provided $402 million for early childhood services, including $2 million in Gila County. The tobacco tax generates about $128 million annually. Gila County currently receives about $1 million annually. The bulk of that money goes to southern Gila County, which has a higher child poverty rate and a large Indian Reservation with serious child health issues.
Voters in 2010 rejected an effort by the Legislature to take that money.
National studies suggest children who receive high-quality, early childhood education before entering kindergarten are 40 percent less likely to qualify as special education students or get held back a grade. They are 70 percent less likely to commit a violent crime by the age of 18, have better language, math and social skills, and score better on standardized tests.
However, recent state trends have dealt a setback to other efforts to improve services for pre-school students. Arizona now has the second highest poverty rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Worse yet, Gila County has one of the highest child poverty rates.
In the Payson Unified School District, the number of students who qualify for free-and-reduced lunches has nearly doubled in the past four years and now accounts for 70 percent of the students. The district also has a stunning 400 students considered “homeless,” which means they’re not living in their own home with a parent.
Moreover, the Legislature two years ago eliminated funding for all-day kindergarten, despite studies that show such programs result in big educational gains.
The state budget cuts last year also cut off medical care for about 250,000 children without medical insurance whose families weren’t quite poor enough to qualify for AHCCCS.
The Legislature also this year all but eliminated subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care to enable parents to work. Those cutbacks cost the state millions in matching federal subsides.