In an average week, 40 children are killed in America by violence. Most of these killings -- 98 percent, in fact -- take place outside of schools. We are paralyzed with shock at the killings in a Littleton, Colo., high school, but do the math and it shows the deaths among youngsters that don't make the headlines add up to more than 150 Littletons a year.
In the last few months, there's been the usual hand wringing over school violence and the requisite White House conference. But at summer's midpoint, when policies and programs affecting schools should be moving into place for fall's opening, there's scant evidence of significant changes. In fact, programs that could prevent youth violence are in considerable jeopardy in the Republican tax-cutting plans. In the end, Littleton has not had much of an impact.
What makes this more than a pity, what makes it really unforgivable, is that there are proven programs that curb violence and other dangerous behavior.
Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is an organization formed in 1996 with the bedrock philosophy memorably expressed by former Winston-Salem police chief George Sweat. As he put it: The fight against crime "needs to start in the highchair, not wait for the electric chair." What gives the message so much clout is that it comes from a group whose members include 500 police chiefs, sheriffs, district attorneys, violence prevention scholars, as well as parents who have lost children to violence. This is not the ivory tower liberal set. These are people who are on the bloody front lines.
They have put together a School and Youth Violence Prevention plan, which has been endorsed by many national and state law enforcement organizations. Minimizing access to guns is a given. But their plan also involves other aspects, including early intervention and prevention programs that spot troubled kids and make sure they get timely and effective help. Most young people who engage in violence show signs of problems in elementary school. Fight Crime: Invest in Kids cites studies that show that children who get professional help when they are young are 50 percent less likely to be delinquent later on.
They want all children to have access to good after-school programs. The importance of this can't be overstated: Violent juvenile crime triples in the hour after school ends, and after-school hours are peak hours for kids to become crime victims or to be involved with drugs, alcohol or sex. Being unsupervised after school doubles the risk that eighth-graders will smoke, drink or use drugs.
But there are programs that work against those influences. In a five-city study, half of a group of at-risk high school youngsters were assigned to participate in the Quantum Opportunities after-school program. The high school freshman boys randomly selected from welfare households were only one-sixth as likely to be convicted of a crime during the high school years as those not selected. All of the boys and girls selected were one-fourth as likely to be convicted of a crime as those not chosen. The boys and girls who participated in the program were 50 percent more likely to graduate from high school on time.
The third part of the invest-in-kids plan would provide access to early childhood development programs for all families. This is the time when children learn to get along with others. Researchers at the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation enrolled half a group of low-income toddlers in quality child care. Twenty-two years later, those left out were five times as likely to have become chronic lawbreakers.
The fourth dimension calls for preventing child abuse through programs that coach parents on how to relate to their children, and through programs to help heal abused and neglected youngsters. Parenting programs for low-income, first-time mothers have cut abuse and neglect by 80 percent and halved the numbers of subsequent pregnancies.
Economist Steven Barnett found that the High/Scope Foundation's Perry Preschool program saved $150,000 per participant in costs that would have been incurred had they become involved in crime.
When Professor Mark A. Cohen, of Vanderbilt University, studied chronic offenders, he estimated that each youngster saved from a life of chronic crime saves Americans between $1.7 million and $2.3 million in the cost of incarceration and in victim costs, such as pain and suffering and property loss.
These kinds of programs should be expanded as part of a crime-fighting initiative. Instead, they are going to be put on life support if the tax cut package approved by the House last week becomes law.
There is, as with all budget matters, some history. When Congress adopted the Balanced Budget Act in 1997 it required massive, across-the-board spending cuts, starting with small cuts in fiscal 1997 and 1998. Cuts of 11 percent to 14 percent are required this year, with more cuts over the next 10 years. The budget surplus we've been hearing so much about is dependent on these spending caps.
Sanford A. Newman, president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, says, "Key Republicans who head the appropriation process have already said they can't even come up with appropriations bills that stay within these caps, so it's been widely assumed they'd be lifted this year since cuts are no longer necessary to balance the budget. These bills would lock in massive budget cuts and likely produce a massive crime wave for decades to come."
These spending caps have gotten relatively little attention, but their implications for federal spending in all areas, including law enforcement and programs for children, are huge. Instead of investing in kids, we are headed straight down the road of investing in criminals. It's shortsighted and fiscally foolish. It makes even less sense if you allow yourself to think about the heartache and human tragedy of children lost to violence.