Early Care and Learning Programs for America’s Children: What’s Good on a Local Level is Good for the Nation

The longterm gains of early childhood programs for children 0-5 years of age have been proven again and again.  American economists, such as James Heckman at the University of Chicago, remind us frequently that the greatest return on investment with regard to children happens in the years before a child begins school.  It’s a greater gain than investing in K-12 education as well as investing in students who attend college.   The issue is that investment in early childhood, and especially the birth to 3 period, pays off in the long run.  However, because it does not pay off in the short run, there is little motivation to invest.

When taxpayers, businesses, religious institutions, policymakers and politicians don’t see a short-term gain in their investment, it results in less interest and fewer dollars. With the current climate in American politics, politicians are worried about re-election.  They spend much of their time attending meetings with key power players and fundraising for the next election cycle.  Policymakers are focused on making a name for themselves or dealing in the here-and-now.  They spend time paying for and analyzing research as well as writing about their policies, the research and stating possible solutions.  Organizations and activists plan marches and events, such as the Strolling Thunder event that took place yesterday in DC, in order to draw attention to the need for funding that supports babies, toddlers and preschoolers and their families and caregivers.  Despite all these efforts, very little of the “taxpayer dollar pie” available for the government to spend gets spent on early care and early childhood programs.

So what can be done while American families wait for financial support that is already slotted for other important federal government programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, WIC, TANF, etc.)?  We can aim to reduce short-term costs of programs that are currently in place.  If we streamline costs by using items in nature, in the everyday environment of a child, or in most households to stimulate brain development, then the need for expensive curricula or toys/devices in early care and early education settings are decreased. Second, we can turn to local governments and businesses for support. If states and cities adopt economic development strategies that help children and families, these localities and businesses are then guaranteeing a better educated, more skilled and better prepared workforce in the future.  Third, we can balance high-quality business incentives   with high-quality early care and early childhood programs.  With a balance in benefits to families as well as to shareholders of a company, it is a win-win situation.  Fourth, businesses can aim to provide child care on-site, and, even better, partially fund child care of the employees’ choosing.  Finally, we can make use of resources from the US Chamber of Commerce and other entities across America which provide resources via their websites that can help businesses strategize about providing access to affordable, high-quality early care and education to children of employees in a way that benefits shareholders, employees and their families.

When we think about empowering businesses, families and local stakeholders to solve the problem of providing early care and education for America’s babies, toddlers and preschoolers, it is easy to envision the benefits that will result for entire communities, cities, states, and the whole of America.

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