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A no-risk investment

Child abuse is costing you money.

It is doubtlessly crass to put it like that. After all, the human costs paid by abuse victims are heartbreaking and lifelong, not merely expensive in social and financial terms.

But a growing body of research shows that money spent to prevent child abuse is a good investment – reducing the eventual costs of crime, health care and remedial education, while helping children grow up to earn more and pay more taxes.

“We know that if we can reduce the child abuse and neglect rates, there’s going to be a number of benefits to the society,” said Steve Aos, associate director of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. “We also know there’s an immediate benefit to the child not being abused.”

One analysis of early childhood programs suggests that for every dollar spent, the state could reap more than $3 in benefits down the road – essentially tripling its money. A new report from The Brookings Institution shows even higher returns for a variety of pre-kindergarten programs for poor children.

A 2005 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, evaluating some of the same research, concluded that spending on early childhood programs resulted in annual rates of return between 7 percent and 16 percent. While estimates can vary depending on circumstances and methodology, experts say the general direction of the research is unquestionable.

“Here the literature is clear: Dollars invested in (early childhood development) yield extraordinary public returns,” the Federal Reserve Bank report says.

In terms of developing a skilled work force, the report says, spending on childhood programs is a better bet than propping up businesses with tax cuts or other subsidies.

“In the name of economic development and creating new jobs, virtually every state in the union has a history of subsidizing private businesses,” the report says. “Previous studies have shown that the case for these subsidies is short-sighted and fundamentally flawed.”

Research has established that children who are abused or neglected are at greater risk for a range of consequences, from stunted brain development to poor performance in school to a greater likelihood of drug abuse to lifetime earnings that fall tens of thousands of dollars below their peers’.

All of those consequences can have lifetime effects for the abused child and ripple effects for society. Abused children are more likely to become criminals, and crime costs everyone a lot of money. Abused kids are more likely to develop problems with mental illness and poverty, requiring social services. They’re more likely to need expensive special education or indigent hospital services.

Quantifying this impact can be difficult. A national group of police chiefs and others who work to reduce crime estimates the annual cost to the country of child abuse at roughly $80 billion. Chris Blodgett, director of child and family research at Washington State University-Spokane, said the social-costs argument is just another way to encourage everyone to get involved in fighting child abuse. “If you can’t be persuaded emotionally, if you can’t be persuaded morally, can we persuade you on the basis of your own self-interest?” he said.

Human investment

In 2004, Aos helped conduct a survey of hundreds of studies of child intervention programs at the behest of the Washington Legislature. An economist, Aos said the report was not unlike preparing investment advice – trying to pinpoint which programs had the greatest return for taxpayers and at-risk families.

Aos said state governments need information like this to know how to best spend taxpayers’ money. Putting it in stock market terms, he said, the report indicates, “There’s money to be made. There are good investments out there.”

Some of the highest returns come from programs that get involved with families as early as possible – even before birth. A program known as the Nurse Family Partnership for Low-Income Women identifies pregnant women who have a variety of red flags for future child abuse, ranging from poverty to a history of abuse. Nurses begin visiting the women six months prior to birth, and visit regularly for two years thereafter, providing parent coaching, health advice and monitoring.

The program reported among the highest financial benefits of any program that Aos and his colleagues at the WSIPP studied in 2004. At an average cost per child of about $9,000, researchers estimated a benefit of more than $17,000, to the child and to society.

“We should be moving more on early childhood education,” said Julia Isaacs, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who wrote a study titled “Cost-Effective Investments in Kids.” “Most other countries do more.”

Said Isaacs, “It seems in this country we’re reluctant to spend (government) money lower than age 5.”

Generally, programs that focused on home visitation by nurses and parent coaching had the best rates of return – benefit-cost ratios of between 2-to-1 and 3-to-1. The estimates vary among programs, and differences in research methodologies make the numbers less than exact.

Not all programs fared so well in the research Aos surveyed. Early Head Start, for example, had a particularly low benefit-cost ratio – losing about 75 cents for every dollar spent. However, he noted that the program does help children; it just does so in a very costly fashion.

“It’s an approach that doesn’t seem particularly promising to me, when you look at the research and the numbers,” Aos said.

The national group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, consisting of law enforcement officials, social services experts and others, said research about child-abuse prevention offers hope, but public funding for effective programs is lagging.

“The evidence is now conclusive: it is possible to prevent most abuse and neglect in high-risk families,” according to a 2003 report from the group. But the report concludes, “Local, state and federal governments are failing to make the investments necessary to prevent child abuse and neglect.”


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