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Early Childhood Development: Why it Matters in the U.S. and Worldwide

Although research shows it is an excellent investment, federal support for early childhood development (ECD) in the U.S. and in developing countries is inadequate and inconsistent. Lacking comprehensive ECD services, millions of children do poorly in school and grow up to have low incomes and high fertility rates, putting strains on social services and perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Date & Time

Jun. 22, 2010
12:00pm – 1:15pm ET


Research shows that children who participate in high quality early childhood programs are less likely to be involved in criminal behavior, are more educated, have a higher income, lower divorce rates, and use social services less. On Tuesday, June 22, 2010, Wilson Center on the Hill and United States Studies co-hosted an event with the Open Society Institute on the importance of investing in early childhood development in and outside the United States. The event was moderated by Sonya Michel, director of United States Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Sarah Klaus, director of the Early Childhood Program at the Open Society Institute, stressed that investment in early childhood development (ECD) is fundamental, not optional. She emphasized that ECD engages not just education but multiple sectors-- health, social protection, parenting, sanitation, and housing. Klaus emphasized the importance of human brain development, as evidence shows that most neural development happens in the first nine months of a child's life. This neural development, although it takes place very early in life, determines your adult capabilities.

The Hart and Risley study, done in the 1990's, looked at how many words children know by the time they are three years of age. Findings showed that children from poorer families tend to have a vocabulary of 200-300 words; middle-class children have a vocabulary of 600 words, and children of affluent families have a vocabulary of 1200 words. Klaus commented on the pattern, stating that by the age of eighteen or twenty months, there is already a distinction and an equity gap. She concluded that this issue of equity is one of the most important with regard to ECD, stating that those who have the least stand to gain the most from early childhood development programs.

The economic argument, or the cost/benefit analysis, for investing in different stages of the lifespan shows that one gets $18 back for every $1 invested in the early years of childhood. Klaus noted insufficient funding has long been an issue. However there are many ways for the U.S. and others to invest in ECD. The most common are through investment in domestic policies and foreign aid appropriations

Michelle Neuman, senior early childhood development specialist at the World Bank, agreed and stated that the U.S. and its partners (including the World Bank) need to do far more in the areas of access, quality, and funding to fulfill their international commitments to young children. Neuman commented that the statistics are quite alarming -- over 200 million children under the age of five in the developing world are not developing to their full potential due to poverty, poor health and nutrition, and lack of psychosocial stimulation. One-third of young children in these countries are stunted, and as high as 50 percent in countries like Malawi. Poor nutrition, she noted, has permanent consequences for the development of a child's brain, their education, and their livelihood. Neuman stressed that it should be accepted without reservation that quality ECD programs can make a difference; proper health and nutrition before the age of two, along with effective interventions combining health, nutrition, and education are key.

Emily Vargas-Barón, director of the RISE Institute, noted that there are three main ways to move on ECD. They include establishing a national policy for ECD in the U.S., expanding U.S. investment in ECD at home and abroad, and greatly increasing the proportion of funding going to children from age zero to three. Vargas-Barón noted that organizations such as UNICEF, UNESCO, and the Inter-American Development Bank place ECD high on their priority lists. She went on to say that in spite of all of these efforts in both multilateral and bilateral support, the bottom line is that overall there is inadequate support for early childhood development in developing nations.

The U.S. has the capacity to not only assist through funding but also technical capacity, Vargas-Barón noted that with ECD as a priority area of the current Administration, the time is right to be able to put forward this initiative within the foreign operations bill.

Adele Robinson, associate executive director of public policy at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, pointed to the lack of fiscal public support for parenting-related needs as an area that is often overlooked when talking about ECD. In the U.S., roughly 60 percent of the cost of ECD is the burden of the parent, while the remaining 40 percent comes primarily from federal sources, but also philanthropic or business sources. The historic investment in ECD has been predominantly federal and the federal money is the driver of ECD both access and quality. The Childcare and Development Block Grant, Head Start, Early Special Education are the cornerstone programs in that effort. By contrast, the U.S. spends about $600 billion for K-12 education, of which only $46 billion is federal. The stimulus bill in 2009 made a substantial difference in early childhood development. The funds helped to reduce waiting lists, allowed reimbursements to childcare and preschool providers to rise and in doing so stabilized the quality of early learning for children and the ability for families to go to work. This was a large part of the driver of the economy.

Head Start is another example of how ECD can benefit from increased federal funds the stimulus billcalled for 14,000 new Head Start jobs, and 50,000 early Head Start (birth to three year old program) jobs. Robinson closed by noting that if there were real interest in closing the gap, then we must have programs that start at the pre-natal stages.

Drafted By: Matthew Robinson, Staff Intern, Program on America and the Global Economy
David Klaus, Consulting Director, Wilson Center on the Hill
Kent Hughes, Director, Program on America and the Global Economy


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