How to Turn $1 Into $166 by Investing in Food and Education

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

In our efforts to find low-risk, high-reward investment opportunities as a nation, it turns out that one of the most high-yield options is right under our collective nose.

We’re talking about children, of course. Investing in the future of the nation (or the world, really) has always been something that most people have been able to get on board with, and new research has not only confirmed that this is a good course of action, but that the potential payouts down the line can be much more than anyone expected when it comes to actual dollars and cents.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo and Cornell University have found that for every dollar invested in early childhood nutrition during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life by the government or society, a return of $166 can be expected in future earnings. These costs naturally come later in life, as children who are not getting adequate nutrition by their third birthday are slower to develop and may have stunted cognitive and motor skills. As a result, they reach adulthood at a disadvantage, and tend to find themselves in low-wage, low-skilled jobs.

“The returns on investments in nutrition have high benefit-cost ratios, especially in countries with higher income levels and a growing economy,” said Professor Susan Horton of the University of Waterloo, according to ScienceDaily. “Height-for-age is a much better measure of health than weight-for-age. It is also predictive of economic outcomes,” she added. “Good childhood nutrition produces people who can contribute more and help boost economic growth.”

While the study itself looked at data from developing nations like Guatemala, Ethiopia, and Kenya, there are plenty of lessons that can be extracted and applied to situations in westernized and industrialized nations as well. The United States, for example, has an ongoing debate on whether public investment into child care, health care, and even education should continue, with many in conservative or libertarian circles increasingly calling for more free market and private sector solutions.

With this new knowledge in hand, is there any way that a country like the U.S. can actually use it to ensure a more economically sound future? Yes, there is definitely more potential for strong growth and higher economic gains in developing countries throughout Asia or Africa, but in the midst of an inequality crisis and sluggish economic times domestically, is a higher rate of investment in our children the answer?

A good percentage of people would likely agree, although given the nature of recent public policy and budgeting decisions coming out of Washington, D.C. and state legislatures over the past several years, it looks like we’re headed in the wrong direction. If education is any kind of indicator for our level of investment in children at the current time, the numbers are quite ugly.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says that funding levels for public education at the K-12 level are worse now than they were before the recession in 35 states. That has come as a result of cuts in both state and federal funding, and has far-reaching consequences. For example, to tie it back into childhood nutrition, initiatives like the National School Lunch Program feed more than 30 million children across 100,000 public schools each day. A cut in funding ultimately hits programs like these, which often have a hard time staying off the chopping block to begin with.

From education to health care, there are also concerted efforts underway to cut significant funding from publicly supported health care programs for children as well. Again, on both the state and federal level, these cuts can undermine efforts to increase many family’s ability to adequately provide healthy, nutritious meals for their children, and also ward off any serious potential health issues that can be identified early in development. The sequester also had a huge impact on pre-K access to education and health care, cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from programs meant to help lower-income families. This was troubling to many, including members of Congress.

“We should be investing more in our children, but sequestration is taking us in the wrong direction,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said, according to American Progress.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

Most of the issues facing early childhood education, health care, and nutrition typically boil down to financial and policy decisions, and it makes sense that the programs promoting growth and investment in those areas would take a hit as a result of the recession. However, the recession has passed, and it’s time that an emphasis on investing in the nation’s children is made a priority.

The question is: How can we ensure that all children are getting adequate care and nutrition, especially during that critical 1,000-day window between birth and the age of three? Unfortunately, there probably isn’t a solution. There will likely always be children who slip through the cracks, no matter how airtight of a system is devised. And even putting a solution together — whether it be a new kind of public health program, single-payer insurance system, or anything else — would likely take many years, and be met with all kinds of resistance from small-government advocates.

Could the free market step in and offer solutions? Perhaps, but right now there doesn’t seem to be an answer. After all, it’s difficult to turn a profit by providing low-income families and very young children with nutritious and healthy meals. It’s hard enough to get American adults to subscribe to a healthy diet, let alone to convince children to choose fruit and vegetables over french fries and hamburgers.

There are plenty of roadblocks in the way, but investing in our nation’s children by finding a way to supply proper nutrition and health care will need to become a priority. The research even shows that there are immense economic benefits from such investment, even if it takes a couple of decades for that investment to pay off. Whether the solution comes from government or from the free market, someone will hopefully find a way to capitalize off of those future earnings, and set the wheels in motion.

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