MERIDIAN — Single moms living in poverty and children born into those households didn’t capture much attention in recent statewide elections. Trends suggest paying attention might be very important.
This past summer The Phil Hardin Foundation in Meridian brought 10 Millsaps College students into the community to work as interns with various agencies. Assignments varied, but political science major Evan Jones got to do some interesting research. His task was to investigate key social and economic challenges facing the city.
After documenting population trends and increasing disparities in income, educational achievement and racial composition, Jones came across data he found shocking — the plight of single mothers, particularly those of color, and their children.
He found poverty, low educational achievement, and little access to health care were common characteristics. He found the proportion of single-mother households in Meridian surprisingly high and persistent. He researched this information after noticing the high rates of teen pregnancy and high incidence of low-birth-weight babies in the city. He called these trends “a catalyst for the cycle of poverty.”
A 40-year study of brain development in disadvantaged children found those most at-risk of poor brain development were those born to poorly educated, single moms living in poverty.
The Abecedarian Project followed children from birth over a 40-year period. Almost two years ago, Dr. Cathy Grace, then the co-director of the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Learning at the University of Mississippi, brought project directors Drs. Craig and Sharon Ramey to Jackson to discuss their findings. Key among them was that early intervention can save these children from broken lives.
Across Mississippi 18% of total households are single-mom families (23% in Meridian). As these high proportions persist, our already high numbers of children born to poorly educated, single moms living in poverty will continue to grow.
Dr. Grace, now retired, also brought Nobel Prize- winning economist Dr. James Heckman to Jackson. He made it clear to Gov. Phil Bryant and others attending his briefing that investing in comprehensive, high-quality, early childhood interventions would yield a 13% return on investment.
The choices seem clear. We can do nothing and allow more and more at-risk children to suffer poor brain development, struggle to succeed in school, and have trouble developing basic skills. Or we can intervene with these children, save them, and turn them into productive workers and citizens.
Concerned professionals such as Dr. Grace continue to champion intervention, but there has been no response at the state level.
My sense is that government in Mississippi will continue to do little. So, what’s the alternative?
Across the country, interfaith coalitions have come together in many communities to address systemic issues. With multiple churches located in nearly every Mississippi community, a broad interfaith movement could provide the needed interventions. That’s the approach under discussion by a group in Meridian.
Of course, any coming together in Mississippi has its own challenges. Yet, it would seem that saving children before they are broken for life would be a very kingdom thing for people of faith to undertake.
• Bill Crawford is a Republican former state lawmaker from Meridian.