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Op-Ed: Doing Right by Number 300 Million …


November 1, 2006

The negative reaction by some to the recent arrival of our 300 millionth American is a reminder of the saying that “We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them.” More than one talking head has suggested the recently arrived 300 millionth American was probably born to immigrant parents — and illegal ones at that. Nobody knows if that is so since the arrival of Number 300 million was really a public relations exercise aimed at recognizing that we recently became 300 million strong.

It’s important when thinking about this issue to emphasize that last word — strong. The anti-immigration crowd wants us to believe the rising number of children from foreign-born parents is a sign of weakness … more kids for the public to educate and support.

The facts don’t square with this view. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Number 300 Million is a girl born in East Los Angeles to parents who emigrated there from Mexico. While she is important to mom and dad for personal reasons, she is important to retiring baby boomers and the Wall Street stock analysts for economic ones.

That’s because, with a little help on the education front, Number 300 Million can help fuel the economic growth and workplace productivity needed to maintain a positive Social Security balance and keep U.S. companies competitive. Were it not for her and her fellow immigrants, we would face the same troubling picture that confronts countries like France, Belgium and Germany. Fertility rates there are now below replacement level. That means that, barring some kind of intervention, these countries are not likely to ensure a future labor supply sufficient to maintain current rates of economic growth and meet pension and public health obligations.

This is a huge problem. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s just-released Starting Strong II report, it’s widespread. Of 20 industrialized countries studied, only the U.S. and Mexico remain above replacement rate. OECD also reports that several countries invest a far higher percentage of their gross domestic products (GDP) in preschool education than the U.S.

Of course, Number 300 Million can’t do her part without some investment in her education. Right now, she’s at a disadvantage. In a recent policy paper from Pre-K Now, Arizona State University investigator Eugene Garcia says Hispanic children attend preschool education less frequently, enter kindergarten behind their classmates, and graduate high school and college at far lower rates. Meanwhile, studies at NIEER and elsewhere show that Hispanic children benefit from high-quality preschool education at least as much as children from other groups — and in some cases, more.

We are indeed fortunate in this country to have human capital with the potential to keep our country prosperous. Before that can happen, we need to invest in it, and that begins with early childhood education.

Number 300 Million could use a little less demonizing from the anti-immigration crowd and a little more help from policymakers who can offer her a high-quality preschool education. She also needs a name. Let’s call her America.

W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D.
Economist and Director,
National Institute for Early Education Research

W. Steven Barnett is a professor of Education Economics and Public Policy at Rutgers University and Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (www.nieer.org) in New Brunswick, New Jersey.