Several initiatives for needy children contained in last week's Budget are concrete investments in the future of younger Singaporeans. With names appropriately resonant of childhood, First Step, KidStart and Fresh Start seek to give children a firmer footing in life. The new First Step grant of $3,000 will help parents who either place no deposits in the Child Development Account or not enough to enjoy the maximum benefits from the Government's co-matching funds. Under KidStart, 1,000 disadvantaged children will receive learning and health support in their first six years. To boost their home life, a grant of up to $35,000 under the Fresh Start Housing Scheme will help families living in rental flats with young children to move into their own two-room flats.
Taken together, these measures can substantially improve children's lives. Often, early intervention is seen as a system of specialised services to help babies and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities. Essential though these particular services are, intervention should also cover the general impediments to a child's ability to access the best of what her or his society has to offer. Some social researchers hold that disadvantaged children fail to do well in school because their cognitive bandwidth is occupied with basic deprivations and a chaotic home environment. Hence the need to address not just the pressing needs of children but also the difficulties dogging the adults in their families.
Equity demands that, as far as is possible, the playing field is levelled for children so that all of them have a fresh start in life unencumbered by problems faced by their parents. The three schemes represent an integrated effort to ensure that children from needy families in Singapore are not consigned to their inherited fate but can count on the support of state and society to fulfil their potential. At the same time, their parents are not absolved of the need to meet certain minimum standards of responsibility. The housing scheme requires families to demonstrate effort by staying employed and ensuring that their children attend school. Such conditions enable the Government to uphold the tradition of fiscal prudence by which citizens by and large judge it.
However, even the most fiscally conservative Singaporean should not begrudge the investment in needy children. The amount invested in early intervention might appear substantial but it is targeted at the deserving and it serves a larger national purpose. Every child who is rescued, early in life, from a dysfunctional economic or familial environment helps check the social cost to the country that might otherwise be felt in the future. The loss might take the form of the economic contribution that some fail to make, or the social burden they impose on society. Singapore and its children deserve better.