Why Public Financing Must Focus on Supporting Families with Young Children

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Greg Bourne, Executive Director, Lead4Tomorrow

At a time when the use of public funds is under great scrutiny, it is even more important to prioritize how public funds are allocated. Ideally, funds are allocated to the greatest needs, and the areas which can provide the greatest impact. Arguably, when considering long-term impacts and implications, near the top of the priority list should be support for families with young children.

According to the research of Dr. James Heckman, Nobel prize winner for Economics, high quality early childhood education is among the greatest “returns on investment” of all public spending. His research notes, “The rate of return for investment in quality early childhood education is 13% per annum through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime.” Of additional importance, “The achievement gap begins at birth. High-quality, birth-to-five early childhood development programs are especially important for disadvantaged children.” Support must begin early.

Other key findings? Heckman found that early nurturing, learning experiences and physical health from ages zero to five greatly impact success or failure in society. Developing skills and social abilities in the very early years is when developmental support is most effective. This is where attention should be given. This early intervention can counter trends such as record numbers of high school dropouts, fewer college graduates, increasing rates of chronic disease and a growing underclass. Heckman’s work also demonstrates that prevention through early childhood development is more life- and cost-effective than remediation later in life.

This suggests that approaches to public policy should be two-pronged – investing in upstream solutions for future generations while also addressing today’s problems. The urgency of dealing with current issues often leads to overlooking or undervaluing the importance of investing in programs that will reduce future life challenges for individuals and society. More far-sighted civic leadership and public investment in upstream solutions is needed to ensure high quality early childhood programs are a priority.

This is supported by research which shows that 85+ percent of brain development occurs by age five, and what happens during the first five years of a person’s life can set their trajectory for a lifetime. Advances in understanding the impacts of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) demonstrates links to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood. Toxic stress takes a toll, and without programs that build the resilience of families and children to counter ACEs and other generational and social trauma, the implications to both the individual and society are clear. We know what is needed – committing sufficient public resources, on an ongoing basis, to support families, especially those with young children. As a society we need to reverse the narrative of what happens when we neglect the importance of strengthening families and early childhood education.

Immigration, the economy and local violence typically dominate newscasts. What is needed is greater public – and political – awareness of the importance of ensuring families have the support needed to provide a nurturing environment for their young children. If we desire a society which is healthy and thriving across a wide range of measures, here is where it must begin – expanding and sustaining support for families with young children. And this must be for the long term, not considered a fad or a temporary concern. Other issues will grab the headlines, and the attentions of public officials. The voice of families and children must be heard above the din of better resourced and more powerful lobbies. Development of and support for programs effective at lifting-up families, especially those in underserved communities, must be unwavering. Professor Heckman and other prominent researchers have provided the evidence and path forward to healthier families and a healthier society.