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Originally published January 8, 2010 at 2:14 PM | Page modified January 8, 2010 at 4:16 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington lawmakers: Don't skimp on kids

Washington lawmakers must be as courageous as struggling families have to be, writes Paolo Maranan, executive director of the Children's Alliance. They must raise substantial new revenue and protect programs that help families stay afloat.

Special to The Times

IT'S often said that a society is best measured by how it treats its children. For decades, our state lawmakers have most often done right by kids. As this grueling recession lingers and more families struggle to make ends meet, it's crucial that our elected officials keep protecting the most vulnerable children among us.

Legions of Washington children live in poverty: about 230,000 and counting. That's almost one in seven kids statewide, and nearly 40,000 more are expected to join them early this year as more moms and dads lose their jobs.

These are children who spend many of their days hungry, or wish they could go to the doctor instead of the emergency room. Without access to early-learning programs, many of these kids fall behind in school long before their first day of kindergarten.

We can't turn our backs on these children or their parents. If we do, we would only create problems that become costlier to solve down the road. So we offer this advice to our lawmakers:

• Be as courageous as struggling families have to be today — raise substantial revenue.

• Protect programs that help families stay afloat during tough times.

• Don't forget that shortsighted decisions can and will make matters worse in the future.

When state lawmakers make kids who need them most a top priority, they help all children.

When the Legislature passed Washington's landmark children's health-coverage law back in 2007, it gave thousands of uninsured children access to the preventive care they need to stay healthy or bounce back when they get sick.

When the state got rid of unnecessary barriers to school breakfasts and lunches, more children could finally focus on their lessons instead of being distracted by their grumbling tummies. Hungry kids can't learn.

If lawmakers backpedal and skimp on kids rather than raise new revenue, in 60 short days they could wipe out two decades of steady progress they've made on behalf of children and families.

Just one of many examples of programs facing elimination is one created in the late 1980s that has helped thousands of high-risk moms give birth to healthy children. Without new state revenue, the entire Maternity Support Services program could be gone by summer.

Another is a massive cut proposed for a program that helps low-wage working parents pay for child care. Thousands of families could be dropped from Working Connections Child Care, and as many as one out of every two new applicants could be denied.

Legislators who rightfully demand a decent return on taxpayer investments would be hard-pressed to get a better bang for their buck than when they support programs that help children.

The math is simple: Small investments today yield enormous savings when kids grow up to become healthy, productive adults. An added benefit we risk losing right now if we don't maintain small, targeted investments in health care, anti-hunger and early learning programs: millions in federal matching funds and bonuses for running our programs well.

Let's hold lawmakers to the high standards they've set by smartly investing in children for so many years. Our state has long lived by some of the wisest words the great writer James Baldwin ever wrote: "For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become."

Now is not the time to walk away from that wisdom. The children who deserve our unflinching commitment to justice would never forgive us — and who would blame them?

Paola Maranan is executive director of the Children's Alliance (www.childrensalliance.org)

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