Few public issues command as much attention as the fate and future of our children. From education to health care, kids are at the heart of many public policy and spending decisions. Each election cycle promises voters their ballots will shape the lives and opportunities of the next generation.
But, for all of the promises, where do Utah children stand? What programs make a difference in young lives? How do we measure success in the early years?
KUED explores this challenging subject in The State of Our Kids: The Early Years, premiering Tuesday, March 31 at 8 p.m. on KUED Channel 7 as part of its ongoing UtahNOW commitment to examine issues that shape our state.
“When I met with Voices of Utah Children, a leading child advocacy organization, about what issues were facing Utah children from birth to age five, without missing a beat they said ‘poverty,’” says producer Sally Shaum. “When they told me the numbers, I knew this had to be a focus of my documentary.”
Fifteen percent of Utah children, or an estimated 132,000, live in poverty. “When this many children live in poverty, it has a profound impact on virtually every corner of society,” Shaum says.
The State of Our Kids explores the compelling human side of those statistics, through three Utah lives: a divorced LDS woman who faced the difficulties of being a single mother of four boys; a 14-year-old girl with a three-month-old baby, who is involved in a home visitation program aimed at helping vulnerable, first-time mothers; and a Utah family that is part of an early childhood program where the parent becomes the child’s most influential teacher.
The documentary profiles a handful of programs aimed at providing our youngest children living in poverty with productive learning and development opportunities. The film covers a spectrum of programs — from health-based initiatives to school-based outreach programs to innovative social investment programs sponsored by the private sector.
Among those convinced of the importance of ensuring early childhood opportunities is the newly-elected Speaker of the Utah State House of Representatives, Greg Hughes, who sponsored the bi-partisan HB96 in the 2014 legislative session. The bill provided funding for preschools and daycare for children most at risk. Hughes believes small investments early in a child’s life can produce greater opportunity in the long run, as well as a substantial savings for the state by making remedial or correctional programs less likely.
Advocates of early childhood intervention caution against the staggering costs that build up over time, when childhood developmental problems associated with poverty are not addressed. “We help them when they’re young and get them ready for kindergarten or we pay later in special education and remedial services,” says Shaum.
Also critical to the development of young children is the opportunity for families to gather in a safe learning environment. In a modern and fast-paced world, community centers are an important gathering place for low-income families. Learning and bonding — from parent to child and from family to family — creates a supportive environment.
Still, the demand for such programs outpaces the need. Many times, even well-intentioned parents face the stark dilemma of choosing between food and heat, medicine or daycare for their children.
“All children begin with simple dreams of doing all they can imagine,” says Shaum. “But sometimes the barriers can become bigger than the dream. Poverty presents significant barriers to success.”