AUGUSTA – We don’t need a reason for wanting our children to grow up healthy, happy and ready to be productive members of society — who doesn’t want that? But there is a very practical reason for wanting what’s best for them: It’s also what’s best for Maine.

In this time of budget cuts and diminished expectations, it might seem that the only choice is to cut spending. But when it comes to policies that affect our children, that would be short-sighted and counterproductive.

We must have longer-range vision and invest in our kids today, or else pay exponentially for interventions in the future. Investing in our children now is the ounce of prevention that will stave off the need for a pound of cure later.

The Maine Children’s Alliance compiles and studies comprehensive data on the well-being of children in Maine. We see the facts and the trends.

Right now those trends are pointing at a disturbing number of children in our state who are suffering as a result of the economic downturn.

More than 21 percent of Maine children under age 5 live in poverty — the highest poverty rate in New England. These are children who do not have a choice about their parents’ financial situation. When children suffer the stresses that come with poverty, it affects their ability to grow, learn and thrive. The challenges that poverty presents — from child care to nutrition to education — severely threaten children’s chances of success later in life.

Current research shows that extreme poverty, like abuse or neglect, can cause enough stress to weaken a young child’s developing brain.

If we want Maine’s next generation to be productive citizens, we must ensure that families who are struggling to provide their kids’ basic needs — food, shelter, clothing and care — receive the support they need.

Children who do not receive support in their early years are much more likely to encounter difficulties as they reach adulthood. These run the gamut of societal problems: high school dropouts, unemployment, poor health, drug use, violence and crime.

These challenges surface regardless of family income. Our data show that fewer than 80 percent of Maine’s “Class of 2009” graduated with a diploma within four years of entering ninth grade.

A recent report from the Maine High School Assessment finds that more than half of Maine’s 11th-graders failed to receive a proficient score in critical reading, math, writing and science.

If we are to bring up a generation of competitive, college-ready young people, we need to focus on education from day one. The students who slip through the cracks are far more likely to face unemployment, especially in a world where only college graduates have a fighting chance of landing a job.

That’s why early childhood support is vital for every Maine child. Healthy development of children from their prenatal days onward is linked to their future success as contributing members of society.

One example of far-sighted investment in early childhood is support for developmental screenings. Too many of Maine’s children make it to kindergarten without ever having been screened for physical or behavioral problems.

If these problems are caught early enough, they can often be dealt with; the longer you wait, the greater the likelihood they will lead to extended interventions, such as medical treatments or special services.

The practical matter is: Doing right by our children is fiscally sound policy. In this time of economic crisis, we must make practical spending decisions.

Support today for programs that help children succeed means fostering the strong work force and productive citizens that will help our state succeed in the future.

As Maine’s governor and legislators gear up to tackle our state budget in these tough times, we urge them to do what we tell our children to do: be smart, make good choices, and do the math.

Adding kids together with wise investments equals a better future for Maine.

– Special to the Press Herald