Joseph Hagan: To invest wisely, invest early

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Dr. Joseph F. Hagan Jr. who practices primary care pediatrics at Lakeside Pediatrics in Burlington. He is clinical professor in pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine of the University of Vermont.

Members of the New England Federal Credit Union may be proud. In late January NEFCU awarded the Committee on Temporary Shelter a $1 million grant in support of their work to provide new housing options for homeless families and some of the almost 1,000 homeless children in our state. COTS has committed these funds to construct new family housing units that will allow families to move from a shelter to a family apartment as a bridge to permanent housing, otherwise known as a home.  

Despite the tireless efforts of dedicated community agencies like COTS, homelessness continues to be a significant problem in our community. Homelessness confers such risk to health and healthy child development that the American Academy of Pediatrics and others now classify it as a “Social Determinant of Health.” Social determinants can have positive effects on health, or they can be a detriment and cause harm. Having a home is protective. 

Not having a home is harmful. 

Being hungry or sleeping in a car on a cold Vermont winter night causes obvious physical harm. But in addition, contemporary understanding in the neurosciences explains the psycho-developmental harm caused by stress. As a species we mediate stress by releasing adrenaline and cortisol to prepare us for life-saving flight or fight, and to help protect us from threatened injury. But when stress becomes chronic, these important hormones have adverse impact on our physiology. And chronic exposure to cortisol has been shown to actually inhibit brain growth and development in children.

NEFCU’s generosity will absolutely improve lives by moving significant social determinants of health from liabilities to assets. These better outcomes will demonstrate the value of their philanthropy. But it is also an example of NEFCU’s business sense. Wise bankers seek a good return on investment. NEFCU’s vision with COTS, as well as their giving history, demonstrates that NEFCU believes in long-term investment to empower recipients to find a home and protect their children.

Nobel laureate James Heckman, Ph.D., is the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and an expert in the economics of human development. He is known for his study of the economics of human potential. Heckman’s Curve strikingly demonstrates that the highest rate of economic returns comes from the earliest investments in children. Dr. Heckman teaches how our society invests disproportionate funds on older development and thus fails to reap the benefits of investments that are targeted to early childhood development. NEFCU has indeed invested wisely.

This important grant is only a start to this new project for COTS families and additional community support is essential. Be motivated by Dr. Heckman. Consider following the example of New England Federal Credit Union and invest in these homeless children and their families Watch their growth and protect their development with your investment.  More information about the Committee on Temporary Shelter can be found at

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