The Straits Times says

Starting early to break poverty cycle

Children whose parents struggle to give them a good start should not have to suffer the consequences of being set back in school and further on in life. A recent decision by the Government to meet this challenge head-on, through a permanent scheme to help low-income kids with their learning and development, is thus to be welcomed. This is necessary as Singapore's high income inequality has persisted despite various forms of financial aid for those on low wages.

It is also timely, given the way well-heeled, well-educated parents are increasingly hot-housing their offspring from a very young age, to ensure success in school and at work. Of course, one would expect all parents to do their utmost to help their children get ahead. However, patterns of privilege might lead to a higher proportion of children from well-resourced families going to branded schools, gaining scholarships and securing good jobs. The trend is so pronounced it has led to concerns in developed societies of meritocracy becoming "inherited".

KidStart helps disadvantaged children, aged up to six, through support that includes pre-natal 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. Its initial goal is to reach 1,000 children and prevent them from falling behind.

Inter-generational poverty is a troubling sign that social mobility has slowed at the bottom rungs of society. If left unchecked, it will drain a country's collective confidence in the future. Thus, the Government is right to invest resources to break the poverty cycle via upstream measures, though this is admittedly a labour-intensive exercise. One-on-one interventions will be needed to track overall development. There are also plans to shape early intervention schemes for at-risk youth and adults. Proactive aid is key to rescuing individuals and families from a downward spiral from which they may struggle to recover. However, such aid has to be carefully calibrated so as not to encourage over-reliance on state help by adult recipients.

The goal of preventing inequality and family dysfunction from becoming entrenched is a laudable one. While the Ministry of Social and Family Development has the option to be more reactive in its policy design, Minister Tan Chuan-Jin has expressed his own belief that "we need to be a lot more aggressive and identify the precursors". Such social policy will call for commitment in the face of slower economic growth which might affect social spending. The benefits, however, will outweigh the costs by helping children, whose start line is far behind that of their peers, to stay in the race. Given the nation's low birth rates, every child must have opportunities to make good.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2017, with the headline 'Starting early to break poverty cycle'. Print Edition | Subscribe