Thousands of needy young children in Maine are missing out on early intervention services that could shape their futures for the better – and still others could lose out if officials in Augusta fail to prioritize the long-term benefits of investing in Early Head Start over the short-term advantages of reining in spending on this critical program.

Geared primarily to families at or below poverty level – $24,600 a year for a family of four – Early Head Start works with children up to the age of 3 and their parents. Adults receive parenting help and child care; get connected to health care, job training, education and other resources, and learn how to prepare their children for school by encouraging their natural curiosity and desire to explore.

While over 8,000 children in Maine are eligible for Early Head Start, there are only 837 funded Early Head Start slots in the state, according to a recently released University of New Hampshire study. And there’s good reason to fear that these services will remain out of reach: Eighty-three more Maine children will be cut off from Early Head Start under Gov. LePage’s proposed state spending plan, which calls for an $1.8 million cut in Head Start funding.

Maine legislators are facing difficult decisions as they struggle to reach an accord on the state budget, but they shouldn’t have to think for very long about whether to fund Head Start. Research shows that high-quality programs for disadvantaged young children consistently pay off down the road.

University of Chicago economist James Heckman analyzed two North Carolina preschools and found that children who’d taken part in well-designed programs were healthier, more likely to attend college and earned more money as adults than children who didn’t go to preschool or went to less-well-run programs.

Philip Trostel, an economist at the University of Maine, recommends full-time education for children from birth to age 5, estimating that it would boost the high school graduation rate for teenagers from low-income Maine families from 72.4 percent to 90.6 percent. And both Trostel and Heckman note that access to child care through programs like Early Head Start makes it easier for parents to get and keep jobs, thus lowering their dependence on public assistance.

The first few years of a child’s life set a pattern for the decades ahead, and if we want those later years to be healthy and productive, we have to pay an up-front cost. Given what’s at stake, we can’t afford to do any less.

Correction: This editorial was updated at 10:32 a.m. on June 21 to correct a misspelled name in the photo caption.

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