Paul Ronningen, Bismarck, column: North Dakota children need Legislature's help

By Paul Ronningen BISMARCK -- And how are the children? The traditional greeting by the Masai of Africa reminds us of the strong value this tribe of warriors puts on the well-being of their children. This greeting is a reminder to us in North Dak...

By Paul Ronningen

BISMARCK -- And how are the children?

The traditional greeting by the Masai of Africa reminds us of the strong value this tribe of warriors puts on the well-being of their children. This greeting is a reminder to us in North Dakota to assess each and every day how well our children are doing.

Children who are provided quality health care and a solid educational foundation are more likely to become productive citizens, leaders and role models. Unfortunately, 8,000 children are living without health care coverage in North Dakota, and another 1,200 eligible children were not able to access Head Start programming this school year.

That's because North Dakota is last in providing the Children's Health Insurance Program to children from low-income families, only covering children up to 160 percent of the federal poverty level (the national average is about 245 percent of poverty.)


Don't North Dakota's children deserve the same level of heath care as those in the rest of the nation?

Increasing health care coverage for all children has considerable benefits. Research has shown that children enrolled in the CHIP are more likely to have fewer hospital stays, have earlier identification of serious health problems, miss less school and get important preventive services.

Expanding quality early childhood education to low-income children is a powerful investment that pays for itself over time. It prepares children for school and provides children the necessary skills to transition to post-secondary education or training.

Head Start generates a 'Return on Investment' that could make hedge fund managers envious. For every $1 invested in Head Start, America reaps a return ranging from $7 to $9. Dr. James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate in economics at the University of Chicago, recommended to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Reform, "Early Head Start and Head Start are programs on which to build and improve -- not to cut."

Rob Grunewald, regional economic analyst, and Art Roinick, retired senior vice president and director of research with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, produced an article titled "The Economic Case for Investments in Young Children" which found investments in preschool programs are very productive.

Some of their findings include a benefit to cost ratio of $16 to $1 and an annual rate of return of 18 percent.

Without the basic building blocks that help children survive and thrive in our society, children living in poverty are more likely to earn lower wages -- or even worse, are at greater risk of incarceration.

The cost of prison is about $35,000 per year, while the cost of incarceration at the Youth Correction Facility in Mandan, N.D., is about $67,800 per year.


Of course, this doesn't factor in the personal loss to the family of the victim or the perpetrator.

It seems a contradiction that children are an oft-touted political priority, but as a state, we have not extended the health, education and safety standards we pride ourselves on to the most vulnerable children in our state.

The 2013 Legislative Assembly will have at least an additional $2 billion at its disposal. Here's hoping that this time, children will be on their list of priorities.

The cost of "doing the right thing" now will be far cheaper as a society than the long-term consequences of poor health and inadequate education.

Unfortunately, some legislators have told me (and followed through with their votes) that providing these types of tools for children from low-income working families violates their principles.

So what are these principles? Do the lawmakers believe that children who "choose" to be born to low-income working parents should be punished by withholding health care and early childhood learning? The current doctrine of our Legislature to punish children for being low-income is truly embarrassing.

Legislative sessions and the preceding election campaigns offer each of us an important chance to contribute to the well-being of all children in our state by asking candidates about their views.

"If I can sit down for justice, you can stand up for children," said Rosa Parks. Herald readers, please stand up with me and ask the candidates for political office to support children from low-income working families with adequate health care coverage and Head Start opportunities during the 2013 Legislative Assembly.


Ronningen is coordinator of Children's Defense Fund-North Dakota.

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