The 2011 governor’s race and political imperatives facing Mississippi’s future

As we embark on this year’s general election campaign for governor, the question has arisen as to the number one policy issue that should be addressed by the candidates. In a state like Mississippi where there are so many needs there is no shortage of worthy initiatives for which a case can be made to fill this role.

If we pause, however, to reflect on only one set of problems that, if solved, would contribute the most to sending Mississippi’s fortunes in a significantly more positive direction I would emphatically state that it would be the broad area effecting early childhood well-being. Now that early childhood issues are being discussed openly by outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour and by both Republican gubernatorial nominee Phil Bryant and Democratic nominee Johnny Dupree perhaps the time is ripe to place these issues at the forefront of the policy debate.

As we pull back the curtain on this discussion it might perhaps be best to adjust the way we talk about the goals of early childhood efforts. In this era of bashing the government for what some claim as its exercising too large and intrusive a role in our lives, yet another costly social program risks having too little appeal to gain traction as a meaningful initiative.

One thought that comes to mind in this regard is that of altering the conversation to one of treating “the causes and not just the symptoms” of those who are disadvantaged. This was the gist of a report appearing recently in the British publication, The Guardian. “Children need life chances not just extra cash” according to the report. “Life chances” is a well-used sociological term referring to those opportunities that make it possible, if taken advantage of, to move from one economic level to another. For example, and certainly to the point, education is one key element that research has shown makes it possible to move upward to other levels.

The numbers quite clearly tell the story. We need only consult the latest “2011 Kids Count Data Book” sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and its accompanying “Mississippi Data Book” compiled and written by Dr. Linda Southward and Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center to satisfy ourselves of the need to engage in a broad-based effort for the creation of “life chances” for the least of Mississippians. It will come as no surprise that Mississippi rests at its customary 50th position on the composite index of 10 indicators of child well-being. We hold fast to that position for such variables as percent of low birth weight babies, child death rates, teen birth rate, percent of children living in families where no parent has a full time job, percent of children in poverty and percent of children in single parent families.

Public policy is the activity that occurs when conditions are recognized, and a plan for changing those conditions is put into play. Serious thinking about and research into these troubling conditions that afflict the youngest among us has been ongoing for a number of years and certainly these efforts were given focus with the 2008 formation of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council of Mississippi. There is knowledge of what needs to be done and experts ready to implement the solutions.

Whether we like it or not, addressing the problem in a meaningful way comes back to resources. While Mississippi is one of only 10 remaining states without statewide pre-kindergarten it is hard to see where we have any choice but to find perhaps a federal-state-local approach to the problem. Furthermore, we will have left things as bad as they are now if we fail to include all children in need in the program solution effort.

Unfortunately, we have had to accept a system of early childhood triage of sorts. At the top level are those children born to reasonably well-to-do two-parent families who are nurtured in that environment until and after they enter school. At the second level are young children who are fortunate enough to find a place in a private childcare environment where quality early learning programs are at least possible. At the bottom level are thousands of Mississippi children being cared for by overworked relatives or neighbors in under-resourced, ill-equipped facilities that are often little more than places that try to keep children out of harms way during the workday.

The increased quality of “life chances” of Mississippi’s vulnerable early childhood population will only be evident if those life chances are enhanced at the lowest levels as well as those levels where glimmers of hope already exists. This will require a major commitment from Mississippians. But let us remember that if we enhance these opportunities in the early lives of those who were afforded little chance then the need for the government to support or confine will be greatly reduced, as will the costs. We would have given ourselves a chance to make a taxpayer out of someone who would have otherwise been a liability for a lifetime. If that is not sufficient, then remember that a great religious leader, on more than one occasion, instructed us to care for the least of our brothers and sisters. And he didn’t offer any options to do otherwise.

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