The 50% solution

At church last Sunday, a retired General Mills executive for whom I have the utmost respect invited me to attend a forum on state funding for early childhood programs. I already knew where this was going, since its publicity mentioned the ambiguous "50% of Minnesota's children are unprepared for kindergarten" statistic, but being of open and reasonable mind, I poured myself a cup of coffee, skipped the doughnuts, and took a seat.

My fellow church member presented Minnesota's school readiness/children in poverty state of affairs fairly objectively (except for the 50% statistic stated without citation), but then his guest Jim Skyrms, from West Metro Faith Communities in Action, tilted the morning on a different tack. One member of our congregation asked, given that not increasing spending on early childhood programs is "stupid," why is Governor Pawlenty is not proposing an increase for them in his new budget? He said that he did not know (why not?), but he has an opinion: "He wants to be President."

So our current governor is placing his political ambitions ahead of the welfare of the children of Minnesota? I thought we were here to discuss funding for early childhood education. Great rhetoric to fire up the base for 2006, but this is where he lost me for the rest of the hour.

Families in poverty are a tragedy in Minnesota, even in "rich" areas like the "Gold Coast" of Lake Minnetonka, where I live. Wayzata shoe repairman Bob Fisher recognized this tragedy in 1996, began making his neighbors aware of it, and challenged us all to chip in a little bit more -- and he slept outside in the cold until his goal was met. This year he and his supporters raised more than his $1.25 million goal (after 38 days of sleeping outside). Yet this amount of money is not enough to meet even local needs for a year.

At my church, we built a new wing onto the building to provide an independent nonprofit transitional child care center for welfare-to-work parents, collecting donations to provide scholarships where necessary.

Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity provides low-income housing, along with a load of lessons on self-sufficient living, in exchange for a lot of "sweat equity."

Here's a time-tested formula for school readiness that transcends class, race, language, and income, and is immune from budget cuts. Each of these steps is required, and each must be performed in the order shown:

1. Graduate from high school (and optionally college).
2. Get a job.
3. Get married after age 21.
4. Have children.
5. Raise children to repeat these steps.

Clearly government, the private sector, faith-based groups, and others are called to wage the war on poverty. But while figuring out what to do today about the parents who skipped a step or did them out of order (and, tragically, the innocent children who now suffer because of these decisions), shouldn't we also aggressively promote this traditional social order because it works?