Pre-kindergarten programs, which are receiving increasing support locally and statewide, are an important step in restoring America’s view of itself as the land of opportunity.
Even when inaccurate, national myths are valuable. They are a reminder of what citizens want for their nation. As the myth and the reality grow farther apart, the pressure to change the reality grows.
Since its founding, a major U.S. myth — maybe the fundamental way in which we view our nation — is that it is the land of opportunity. From the humblest beginnings, a hard-working American can reach amazing heights. America has never believed in equality of outcome, but it always has believed in equality of opportunity. Income mobility is a part of our national fabric.
The fabric has come unraveled.
Income mobility in the United States is among the worst in the developed world. Absent unusual talents, a poor child is almost certain to be a poor adult and to have children who also live in poverty. The moral tragedy is that children who should have a fair shot at success no longer have one.
The social consequences of a myth that no longer has any connection to reality could be chaotic. Our nation was founded in part as a rejection of the class-conscious society in Great Britain. Generational poverty creates a class of people who are sidelined from the benefits of capitalism. They see the riches around them, but also see — in starkly personal terms — the statistical reality that those riches are beyond them. This creates an unhealthy tension — a destruction of national cohesion — that cannot end well.
The problems that led the national reality to fall so short of the mythology are many. Most of the solutions are complex and controversial.
One, however, is relatively simple and widely recognized as effective.
Universal, voluntary pre-K programs are startlingly effective in promoting income mobility. Study after study has found that investments in pre-K programs pay huge dividends. The children of many impoverished families enter kindergarten with a handicap they never overcome. It’s a gap that grows with each year of schooling, leading to higher dropout rates, a drastically reduced likelihood of attendance at post-secondary schools and a greater likelihood of imprisonment.
Increasingly, taxpayers are recognizing the wisdom of investing in pre-K. While the programs can be viewed as altruistic, they also make financial sense. Pre-K programs are far less expensive than the welfare services and prisons they help avoid.
Some organizations are not waiting around for taxpayers and politicians to wake up to the long-term financial benefits of universal, voluntary pre-K programs.
One such organization is the Decatur-Morgan County Minority Development Association, which hosted a fundraiser Saturday — its second of the year — to raise money to send children to pre-K programs. Its goal is $50,000, enough to enroll 18 children.
Pre-K programs may not solve the problem of generational poverty, but they help. They are a step in the direction of bridging the gap between the noble U.S. mythology of equal opportunity and a reality that falls far short.