Proposition 203, "First Things First," was designed to be popular. But should it be? It strengthens government's role in the upbringing of young children, at the expense of parents. And it's funded with a regressive, unstable tax.
The $150 million tax would fund pre-kindergarten education and health screenings for children up to age 5. The Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Board, appointed by the governor, would oversee "regional partnership councils" which would provide information about services and distribute the money. Nadine Basha, the leader of the campaign, says "the regional councils are the strength of the program because it's not government saying this is what you have to do."
But of course it precisely is government providing services. Most will go to children whose parents are able to provide for them, but not without some financial stress. Low-income children are already entitled to comprehensive childcare, including Head Start and other pre-K programs. They also receive free comprehensive medical services, not just "health screenings."
So the main beneficiaries of First Things First, as detailed in recent press accounts, would be middle-class families who pay for child care. Arizona families with dependent children have an average income of $47,000. Preschool programs cost $4,000 to $8,000 annually per child.
"Paying for child or dependent care can take a huge bite out of a family's budget", according to Nancy Duff Campbell of the National Women's Law Center. "You definitely make sacrifices," one young mother confirmed, adding that she could have done more home improvement projects if not for the cost of preschool.
But when did the necessity of parental sacrifice become a concern of government? Parents traditionally assumed that sacrifices, financial and otherwise, would be required of them. Families were unconditionally responsible for the intellectual, as well as emotional and moral development of young children. Overall, they do a pretty good job. There's not a speck of evidence that the programs vying now to displace families in the lives of young children can do as well.
Backers of First Things First undoubtedly contend that they are only responding to the reality of inadequate parenting. But it's the chicken and the egg. The more government does directly for children, the smaller role there is for family.
Families, including those with low incomes, have several ways of providing for child care when parents are away. Family members including grandparents, neighborhood cooperatives and flexible and reduced work schedules are all among the options. Government programs trump all these choices, reducing the role of parental guidance in the nurturing of the young.
All this free stuff must be paid for somehow. This time it's an 80-cents-per-pack tax on tobacco products. It's a curious choice. Tobacco was selected for the honor simply because polling revealed voters would support the program if it were paid for by a cigarette tax. Apparently sacrifice is more popular when it's someone else's.
Smokers long ago descended into minority status. Politicians know you can't go wrong slapping around tobacco companies or smokers. But economists agree that a tobacco tax is extremely regressive, paid mostly by low-income taxpayers. So this program benefiting all children will be paid for by the economically disadvantaged.
Moreover, the tobacco tax is an unstable, declining revenue source. Tobacco is already taxed more than 10 times the untaxed value of the product. Manufacturers actively discourage the use of their product.
Why are the sponsors not concerned that their program, providing services to a growing population, is supported by a shrinking revenue base? They must believe that the programs will be so popular that future legislators will be forced to develop other revenue sources.
Policymakers should realize that, in the long run, it is impossible to improve the lot of children if you diminish or damage their families. First Things First fails this simple test. Government could strengthen families by helping parents be accessible and responsible to their children instead of supplanting them.
East Valley resident Tom Patterson ( firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a retired emergency room physician and former state senator.