Invest in Policies and Programs that Alleviate Poverty and Build Resilience

The intertwined impact of racism, poverty, and trauma perpetuates a seemingly relentless process that ensnares thousands ofyoung people of color in the school- to-prison pipeline. Changing this requires a commitment to universal availability of programs that build resilience. Ironically, approaches already shown to produce significant results exist but are not universally used. Within Our Reach (Schorr, 1988) cataloged a wide array of effective programs for “breaking the cycle of disadvantage,” but our policies remain uninformed by what we know already works.

The most successful programs build resilience by investing in early intervention for all children and from their interruption ofcascades ofdevelopmental risk. Three examples of the ability to significantly change the life trajectory of poor children of color stand out: the Nurse-Family Partnership (Olds et al., 2002), the Abecedarian program (Campbell et al., 2002), and the Perry Preschool Program (Schweinhart et al., 2005). Each program shared four common features: an emphasis on serving poor preschool children of color, early intervention, promoting children's school adjustment and learning, and a long-term outcome evaluation. These enriched early intervention programs enhanced participants' noncognitive skills and consistently produced a lasting impact not attainable by the public school's focus on cognitive test scores as a measure of success (Heckman & Masterov, 2004). Early intervention (a) raised cognitive and socioemotional abilities; (b) promoted staying in school; (c) reduced crime; (d) fostered workforce productivity; (e) reduced teenage pregnancy; and (f) promoted adult health. The Perry Program's follow-up at age 40 showed higher rates of high school graduation, salaries, and home ownership and lower rates of adult welfare assistance, single-parent births, and arrests than for the controls (Heckman, 2006). Benefit- cost ratios estimated to “range from $3.02 of benefits for each dollar invested” (Washington State Institute for Public Policy, 2008, p. 8) to over an $8 return per dollar invested produced rates of return of 6% to 10% per annum “compared to the post-war return on equity of 5.8%” (Heckman, 2011, p. 35).

Without these pre-kindergarten programs, the children typically experienced a common pattern of early and persistent language and cognitive difficulties most often responded to by strict discipline, suspension, and expulsion once they began school. Waiting until first grade to start remedies for the stressful effects of early life poverty, racism, and trauma on brain development compromises their effectiveness, even though brain plasticity continues into early adulthood (Karatoreos & McEwen, 2013). However, federal and state funding prioritizes programs for children aged 6 to 18 by a factor of three ($3,000 vs. $9,500/child) (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2014). Lastly, recently published studies ofimproved family economic stability (Costello, Erkanli, Copeland, & Angold, 2010) or moving out of impoverished neighborhoods (Chetty & Hendren, 2015) showed significant benefits and replicated the finding that direct service provision beginning earlier in a child's life achieved even greater benefit. However, significant public policy initiatives focused on universal early investment in disadvantaged children's lives remain rare despite their proven capacity to save society money over the long term, to achieve individuals' productive participation in society, and to promote fairness and social justice.

On an optimistic note, recognition of the need for universal early life resilience promotion initiatives and trauma-informed programming is gaining national attention. For these efforts to be “within our reach,” advocates for change stress cross-systems collaboration within education, child welfare, juvenile justice, and children's mental health services combined with a social justice and human rights perspective.

 
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