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Pandemic and economic crises have hit Minnesota’s poor the hardest. A silent tragedy could add to their suffering for generations to come.

Nearly 8,000 children of Twin Cities families in poverty — and perhaps thousands more — have watched the help that prepares them for school vanish. Quality early childhood education, aimed at kids under five, faces quiet calamity.

By late May, almost one in five of 943 Twin Cities early ed programs reported being closed, according to research by “Think Small,” a local child care advocacy group. And the total could be considerably higher. No one came to the phone at 750 other early ed projects. Not an encouraging sign.

When will their doors reopen? Maybe someday. Maybe never. No one knows.

With the future of government aid and private philanthropy in doubt, the time has come to channel resources to keep the best-run early childhood education programs alive — and, in better times, expand them.

A recent $100,000 grant by the Minneapolis-based Constellation Fund offers a model of how to direct aid to the most-effective early education programs in the months and years ahead.

The Constellation Fund chose “Way to Grow,” a Minneapolis early ed program for its grant. Constellation made its choice using rigorous cost-benefit analysis to determine the rate of return — bang for the buck — of “Way to Grow” compared with others in the field.

Constellation’s yardstick, developed by economists, rested on reliable long-term results in early education programs across the country. The results included fewer future dropouts, lower incarceration rates in later life, higher lifetime incomes — and the likelihood that the children of today’s toddlers will have children who fare better than they would have otherwise.

In the case of “Way to Grow,” Constellation estimated that every dollar spent getting children under age 5 ready for school had a potential payout of $10.

But that 10-1 return on investment probably underestimated the gains from early ed. The figure includes only the benefits to the children and their families. What about society? The benefit of law-abiding taxpayers for generations to come could yield far higher rewards.

The loss of those benefits, at early ed initiatives that face financial hardship, could echo for decades to come.

Only about 16,000 of the state’s estimated 51,000 young children in poverty have received scholarships for early ed programs. That was before the pandemic. And that was a tragedy in relatively good times.

Minnesota’s school achievement gap is among the largest in the nation, with the seeds of failure spread in the first years of life. That’s why the best early ed programs offer aid to mothers even before their children are born and before their kids learn to walk and talk.

Creating a learning environment — and nurturing the skills of achievement — starts with the parents. But, at a time when they may have lost their jobs, face pay cuts or work in jobs that could expose them to virus, help with their children is more critical than ever.

And that help is disappearing.

It’s time for Minnesota philanthropies — and state government — to make early ed a priority in a time of scarcity. And to use the tools of economics to ensure that the money they earmark for these programs is spent wisely and effectively.

Rebuilding the economy for today will be a challenge. Let’s not doom the economy of tomorrow by expanding a permanent underclass. Let’s build lives, not prisons of poverty.

Art Rolnick, a former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, is on the board of Way to Grow, Think Small and the Northside Achievement Zone. Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter, is a writer in Minneapolis.