TL;DR – So that fewer people lose at the starting line.
Some people think that poor people are poor because they are lazy. If only they would work hard, then they wouldn’t be poor. That’s how meritocracy works, right?
Unfortunately, people who think that way are wrong. Very wrong. Some people, no matter how hard they work, will remain poor. Why? Because these people have lost the lottery of life. They are disadvantaged the moment they are born.
Losing in the lottery of life… from the very start
Research shows that children who are born in low income families makes the children more likely to have poorer life outcomes. Dr Mathew Mathews, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies pointed out that children born in lower income families may not receive the preparation needed to be school-ready – such as being equipped with foundational literacy-related skills, conversational abilities and behavioural habits, including self-regulation and the willingness to cooperate. Dr Mathew wrote:
“These disadvantages make it hard for them to thrive in school environments, for they do not start at the same level as their middle-class peers and may not catch up over the primary school years. And this ultimately affects their self-esteem and subsequent motivation to reap academic success”
Consequently, these children do poorly in school. And, as we all know, children who do poorly in school are likelier to be stuck with inferior jobs that pay lower salaries.
What can be done?
It’s not an easy problem to solve. But early intervention during the pre-school years has been shown to be effective in mitigating against this downward spiral.
In 2013, the Lien Foundation and charity Care Corner piloted the Circle of Care programme. It brings together pre-school teachers, social workers, education therapists and health professionals to help more than 140 at-risk children in 10 pre-schools.
The programme has delivered encouraging outcomes. The children in the programme had higher rates of pre-school attendance and better reading and numeracy skills. This seems consistent with findings of long-term studies in the US which found that intervening early produced lasting effects that benefit the child and the rest of society. Renowned American economist James Heckman said every dollar invested in the programme produced a 7% to 12% return.
What is being done in Singapore?
So it’s quite clear early intervention will help children born to low income families have better outcomes as adults. If that’s the case, shouldn’t Singapore be implementing some nation-wide early intervention programme?
In 2016, the government started KidSTART. It is an early intervention programme for Singaporean children from low-income families, aged up to six and living in one of five areas where the scheme is being piloted. The programme coordinates and strengthens support across agencies, extends new forms of support, and monitors the progress of children from birth onwards. The support includes prenatal screening, home visits for babies’ nutrition and care, playgroups for those aged one to three, and dedicated staff at pre-schools who focus on keeping these children in school.
KidSTART is going to be permanent
It is still too early to tell how much KidSTART has helped the children, although the initial aim was to help 1,000 children. But the outcomes so far must have been encouraging. Why do we say that?
Because the government is going to extend the programme beyond its pilot stage and make it permanent. Also, the government wants to extended the programme beyond just the initial five areas if there are available resources.
Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said in a recent interview with the Straits Times that the Government is also stepping in earlier to help workers and families who are showing signs of financial struggle yet would not usually qualify for ComCare aid. He added,
“Certainly, anecdotally we see that (intergenerational poverty) happening,” he said. “For certain family circumstances, we know it is challenging and the probability of perhaps poorer outcomes for the children as they grow up will be higher. So we want to make sure that we intervene.”
What more can be done?
Making KidSTART a permanent programme is good news. And a good start. Hopefully, the government will build on this good start by also considering extending the duration of support. There is concern that children may lose whatever they have gained from KidSTART once the “graduate” from it.
Perhaps the government can learn from the Circle of Care programme. To ensure that the gains attained in the early years persist, the Circle of Care programme was extended to continue supporting beneficiaries till they reach Primary 3. Starting with the Primary 1 batch of about 40 children this year, progress reports prepared by pre-school teachers, educational therapists and social workers are shared with the primary schools that the children go to.
Given that starting primary education is a huge transition for children, it would be very useful to have better coordination between the people working with the children in KidSTART and the primary schools they go to. This continuity of support for the children through to primary school will further solidify the foundation built in the early years.
Of course, the government has finite resources that it needs to spend on a lot of other things too. So it has to think how to stretch the dollar to expand KidSTART. Also, it has to prevent helping so much that parents end up developing a dependence on the government. If the government can do all that and still expand KidSTART, then we will have a better chance of having a fairer meritocratic system.
Keeping social mobility alive
Singapore has always enjoyed a higher level of social mobility than most other countries, DPM Tharman once shared that in Singapore, 14 per cent of those in their mid-20s to early 30s, and who started out in families in the lowest 20 per cent income group, moved into the top 20 per cent income group. By comparison, it’s only 7.5 per cent in the United States.
Let’s hope that social mobility continues to be fluid in Singapore.