- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

There is a new campaign under way to win increased federal funding for pre- school and child-care programs by using a gambit dear to conservatives as well as liberals: crime reduction.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids has issued a report, "America"s Child Care Crisis: A Crime Prevention Tragedy," linking participation in quality child-care programs with reductions in juvenile delinquency and criminal convictions.

This seems to assume that:

• Two-earner families and single parenting are here to stay.

• Guaranteed incomes for the poor such as Barry Goldwater once proposed to replace welfare are not an alternative to institutional supports for children.

• Providing stability and nurture for the nation's children is now, by default if nothing else, largely a role for society or the state rather than the family.

The report's authors include a former New York City and Boston police commissioner, San Diego's former police chief, and social scientists and psychologists.

Last Thursday, a panel of these authors participated in a conference-call colloquy with about two-dozen journalists from across the country, including this correspondent. Fight Crime's president Sanford A. Newman said, "There can be no responsibility of government more fundamental than providing for public safety." He then proceeded to build a statistical case for supporting child-care and child-development programs as a "front-end" or pro-active means of combating crime.

The big push is to secure Fight Crime's proposed $1 billion increase in Head Start funding (up from $5.27 billion) and a $817 million increase or near doubling in Child Care and Development Block Grants for other state and local programs for poor children. (The Clinton administration has proposed similar funding levels.)

"Because of inadequate funding, Head Start today can serve only half of the 3- and 4-year-olds eligible for the program," the report stated. Conference organizers called the proposed increases "small but badly needed steps."

Although sometimes academically faulted for providing a jump start that nevertheless slows as the children move up in grade, Head Start is seen by Fight Crime as offering the prospect of long-term behavioral adjustment.

Statistics mustered from the High/Scope Perry Preschool program in Ypsilanti, Mich., indicated that youngsters from at-risk homes who did not participate in the program were 5 times likelier to become chronic lawbreakers by age 27 (35 percent, as opposed to 7 percent of those who participated in the program). Mr. Newman explained that the High/Scope Perry program was very much a model for Head Start.

The center of the Fight Crime argument is that providing child care, like public education, is an up-front investment that actually reduces economic costs associated with crime including penal supervision. The organization reported that 90 percent of police chiefs surveyed agreed with that premise. Fight Crime sees crime-reduction attributed to child care saving about $7 for every $1 spent.

The group says poor families lack access to adequate child care, and it can cost up to a quarter of their incomes (compared with 6 percent for families with incomes of $54,000 and above).

One of the journalists questioned whether the anti-crime motive is compelling in view of the downward trend of crime nationally. Another questioned the soundness of existing public programs such as in education and what this portends for governmentally driven programs.

Also questioned was the social benefit of taxpayers funding $12,000 a year in child care so a mother can hold down a $12,000 a year job. Autonomy seems an uncertain value here, with the nanny state helping rear the young.

Conservatives need to get involved in this issue and see what can be done in all this toward strengthening family and other traditional structures.

How can at-risk children be developed into productive citizens in a republic of limited government?

Invoking the gods of public safety to secure larger government roles and expenditures could as easily justify a Chinese-style birth-control program among the poor as justify a day care center. But is that where we want to go?

We might hope instead that the at-risk children of today can grow up not only peaceable and law-abiding but also responsible and free. We ought to wish for them to adjust to reasonable social norms and yet bear the ineffable mark of free Americans. For this, the traditional family and community once by and large seemed to serve us well. But how can these be recovered, or water swept up a hill?

Benjamin P. Tyree is deputy editor of the Commentary pages of The Washington Times.

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