A Second Chance for the Youngest Americans

Imagine: What if the country could agree on a way to address the huge unmet needs of young children? What if our solution marked a shift in national priorities, directing substantial money toward high-quality child care and early learning? And what if—and here’s the part that strains credulity—Congress approved such a plan?

Well, it already happened. In 1971, back when All in the Family was hitting the airwaves and Muhammad Ali was battling charges of draft dodging, the House and the Senate passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act. Although it was named for its child-care component, the legislation would have created a nationwide system for providing education to young children and was the product of years of debate and planning among child-development experts, women’s rights groups, and the business community. But President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, giving a speech (written by Patrick Buchanan) that warned about the dangers that “communal child--rearing” posed to the traditional family. His goal, he explained, was to “enhance rather than diminish both parental authority and parental involvement with children.”

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Second Chance for the Youngest Americans

The Abbot District's Fortunate Few

Sidebar: China Goes Big

Sidebar: The Robin Hood Plan

Sidebar: The Fade-Out Debate

Sidebar: High Enrollment, Low Standards

Q&A: The Genius of Early Intervention


This special report was made possible through the generous support of the Irving Harris Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Pritzker Children’s Initiative. The views expressed in these articles are not necessarily those of the funders. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation generously supported the promotion and distribution of this special report.

Until recently, the federal government has made no effort to address young children’s needs that rivals the breadth and ambition of the 1971 legislation. Though incremental improvements over the intervening decades have been made, resources for young children have remained scarce. Nationally, less than 1 percent of public investments in education and development are spent on children ages four and younger, which, internationally, makes us an outlier. The U.S. ranks 24th of all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries in terms of per-child spending on early childhood education.

Meanwhile, the challenges children face have increased. Back when the Comprehensive Child Development Act was drafted, fewer than half of American mothers were in the workforce. Today, about 70 percent are, meaning that, in most families, there’s no parent home to nurture and teach young children. Many of these kids wind up in child care that is inadequate, in large part because the workers are underpaid. The average wage for a child-care worker is $9.28 an hour, according to the most recent Department of Labor numbers, less than what manicurists and animal-care workers earn. More children than in 1971 are now identified as speaking a language other than English or having developmental delays upon entering school.

Perhaps the biggest change affecting young children since 1971 is the widening gulf between rich and poor. Economic inequality is most often defined in terms of adults—their income, diminished marriage prospects, professional status, and the like. But kids feel inequality acutely. While wealthy children have access to good care if their parents work, poor children are far more likely to be left in unregulated environments or in child-care centers, most of which are either just “fair” or “poor,” according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Meanwhile, the number of children in disadvantaged families has climbed over the past three decades and, since the recent recession, jumped. Today, almost 22 percent of children are officially poor—up from 18 percent in 2007. If you include low-income children, the percentage shoots up to 43.

As the wealthy have invested more time and resources in their young children and the number of children living in poverty has climbed, the gaps between the most and least advantaged kids have emerged more starkly and earlier. The latest research now shows cognitive differences between babies from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum as soon as nine months. By the start of kindergarten, average test scores of children in the highest socioeconomic group are 60 percent above those of children in the lowest socioeconomic group. This “income achievement gap” is growing quickly, with the gap between kids at the top and bottom tenth of the income spread now nearly twice as large as the racial achievement gap.

We know what happens to those left on the unluckier side of this chasm, however it’s measured: They are more likely to repeat grades, drop out of high school, abuse drugs, get pregnant as teens, and become unemployed and incarcerated. We know, too, how to stem these problems. Although decades of research has homed in on which specific methods are most effective, the best way to help low-income children was clear back in 1971: provide them with good care and education, as early as possible. 

President Barack Obama has introduced his own early-childhood plan, which would do just that. If it passes, the first nationwide early-education initiative will direct $100 billion over ten years toward a range of programs that help low-income children from birth up to age five. Three-quarters of the money would be used to ensure that four-year-olds whose parents earn twice the poverty line (that is, they live in households that earn no more than $47,100 for a family of four) can attend preschools, and the rest will go toward home visiting, child care, and other services for infants and toddlers.

Now the question is whether this second major early-education effort can succeed.


Obama’s proposal, which he announced in his State of the Union address last February, rests on decades of intensive research that clarifies both the potential—and vulnerability—of young children. We know now, for instance, that 85 percent of core brain structure forms by age four and that, by the time they reach kindergarten, children can acquire thousands of vocabulary words as well as many of the skills they’ll need to do calculations, write, and be productive members of a group.

The harm that inferior care poses to children during these first years has also become accepted scientific fact. A whole field has emerged around the effects of stressful situations—including poverty and inadequate child care—on young brains. Researchers have also documented that carefully designed efforts allow disadvantaged children to keep pace with their better-off peers in school and beyond. Done properly and started early, such interventions can be life-changing. When Obama unveiled the details of his plan at a preschool in Decatur, Georgia, there was no question of his familiarity with that research. “Education has to start at the earliest possible age,” he said. Though he had been goofing around with the kids beforehand, hugging and fist-bumping them, he was solemn when describing what went on in their classroom. “This is not baby-sitting,” he said. “This is teaching.”

The distinction can sound trivial. But to early-education advocate Joan Lombardi, the awareness projected by the president was “revolutionary.” “It was recognition that the people in that room were teachers and what they were doing was important,” Lombardi says. As the top early-childhood official in the Obama administration until 2011, Lombardi helped expand Early Head Start, launch a home--visiting program for new babies, and direct stimulus funds to early-childhood efforts. She says the president’s plan marks a huge advance in the commitment to early education—and his articulation of it changes the country’s trajectory on the issue: “I don’t think you put big moments like that back in the box.”


Six years ago, marketing and messaging consultant Rich Neimand was looking over the public polling on early education, when he stumbled on a peculiar phenomenon. When surveys asked about the most effective means of teaching young children, the vast majority responded that the ideal was to have one parent at home. When Neimand dug deeper, though, he found that most of the people who said a parent ought to stay at home were in families in which both parents worked outside of the home and had their children in other settings.

The apparent contradiction suggests that American parents were living with unrealistic—and potentially guilt-inducing—expectations of themselves. Most were in the workforce, but they harbored lingering hopes of conforming to the traditional vision of family Nixon laid out years ago. This was before the economic meltdown, when the idea of supporting a family on a single salary was still within hoping range. “Prior to the recession, everybody felt they could be more affluent at any moment, and therefore they wanted to take the risk of fewer social-support services,” Neimand says. “They were all looking up.”

Just a few years later, after a recession harsh enough to dash the dreams of even the most aspirational parents, much has changed. On the heels of President Obama’s announcement, a national advocacy group called the First Five Years Fund hired Neimand along with Democratic and Republican pollsters to gauge both the public’s support for the president’s proposal and citizens’ understanding of the issue the plan is meant to address. On both fronts, the survey indicated a level of comfort with and enthusiasm for early education that hadn’t existed six years earlier.

Given five national priorities, voters interviewed in July ranked preparing young children for school second only to jobs and economic growth. Seventy percent of the 800 people surveyed recognized that kids enter kindergarten without the skills required and felt that the country should do more “to ensure children start kindergarten with the proper knowledge and skills to succeed.” Perhaps most startling, when presented with a description of Obama’s plan, 70 percent—including 64 percent of independents and 60 percent of Republicans—said they were in favor of it.

“Support from everyone was higher than we thought,” says Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund. Perry wasn’t the only one surprised by the results. “The Republican pollster told me, ‘If I hadn’t done this poll myself, I wouldn’t believe it.’”

While the economy’s downward turn was part of the reason for the shift in public opinion, another trend helped move the dial, too. The argument for intervening early in the lives of disadvantaged children had historically been made on behalf of the children. Head Start, the government’s first and still primary early-intervention program, was launched in 1965 as part of the “war on poverty.” Preschool advocates have long made their case in terms of social justice: Helping needy children is the right thing to do. 

Today, advocates still argue that spending on early-childhood programs is best for individual children and families. (In Decatur, Obama made the moral argument that “the size of your paycheck … shouldn’t determine your child’s future.”) But advocates also now stress that our failure to tend to disadvantaged kids’ needs is undercutting the economy and is bringing everyone down. Early education, proponents contend, benefits not just the kids being taught but also society at large.

Evidence for this argument has been around at least since the beginning of the 1990s, when studies of the Perry Preschool began to yield long-term results. Started in Michigan in the 1960s to improve the academic performance of low-income students, the Perry program enrolled poor three- and four-year-olds with low IQs. By age 5, the kids had a higher IQ. They also went on to benefit in unforeseen ways, including being more likely to graduate from high school, having higher incomes, drinking and smoking less, and being less likely to get arrested.

Those outcomes translate into high savings to taxpayers. But it wasn’t until an economist named James Heckman started looking into the Perry numbers that preschool began to be widely seen as a wise investment. According to Heckman, Perry yielded taxpayers more than $16 for every $1 spent. No one could accuse Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago who won the Nobel Prize for his work applying statistics to economic relations, of being a softy. Rather than talking about right or wrong, he spoke of productivity and rates of return calculations. Specifically, he estimated that early education has a 10 percent rate of return, better, in most cases, than the stock market and other government programs. Investing in early education, he said, would both increase economic productivity and save on such costs as incarceration, police, and convict rehabilitation programs.

The Committee for Economic Development, a group of executives affiliated with local chambers of commerce, has used Heckman’s research to explain the consequences of not providing preschool in terms their members understand: lost earnings and tax revenue, increased health-care costs, and decreased national productivity. ReadyNation, a group of business leaders who support early-childhood policies, has also embraced Heckman’s argument. As the former chairmen of the Walt Disney Company and Macy’s, both ReadyNation members, put it in a New York Times op-ed, “Capitalists for Preschool”: “Universally available prekindergarten is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.” 

The economic approach to early education has held sway with lawmakers, too. Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan, a Republican, just doubled pre-K spending, calling it a “strategic investment.” In June, Governor Robert Bentley of Alabama, also a Republican, announced additional pre-K funding, a move first urged—and later cheered—by local business leaders. Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, another Republican, launched a pre-K program last year. Over the summer, New Mexico’s Republican governor, Susana Martinez, received federal funding to expand her state’s small preschool program. And Mississippi, infamously ranked at the bottom of many measures of education, recently launched a preschool program, the last state in the South to do so. The bill provides $50 million for pre-K over the next 15 years.


Even the combined support of Republican governors, the business community, and the public can’t guarantee the passage of the president’s proposal. Few on either side of the aisle seem enthusiastic about Obama’s plan to pay for early-childhood programs with a tobacco tax. Within some states that have launched their own preschool initiatives, there is resistance to federal involvement. Certain policymakers have voiced concerns that they won’t have the freedom to run their program as they’d like. Others worry about the possibility that matching funds from Washington will diminish—and perhaps, disappear—after ten years, leaving states with the burden of financing their early-childhood programs on their own. Then there are the daunting political hurdles in Washington: It’s hard to imagine any early-education initiative that originates with the White House making it through the current Congress.

Were Obama’s initiative able to overcome these obstacles, many problems and questions would remain. Because it would cover the costs of early education only for low-income children, many others would still not have access to programs. States and the feds would likely have different opinions over which level of government is responsible for what. Then there’s the matter of finding and training the 100,000 or so new teachers that would be necessary to staff new preschool programs. For infants and toddlers, even larger questions loom, including which services would be provided. 

Yet early-education advocates are confident these concerns can be addressed and that they’ll get to this problem-solving stage—if not tomorrow, then sometime in the not-too-distant future. “It’s inevitable that preschool will be a reality,” Joan Lombardi says. Her optimism is understandable. After all, it took decades for the idea of requiring everyone to attend public elementary school to become, first, acceptable and, later, law. But it happened. Today, much of the job of explaining the importance of early education has already been done. Public support was widespread enough in 1971 to pass the child-care bill through Congress. Buttressed by scientific and economic research, enthusiasm is now even stronger.

Because it affects not just children but also the ability of mothers to work outside the home and thus the economics and dynamics of families, the question of what we as a nation do to support young children has long been vulnerable to political attack. Nixon played on anxieties around women in the workforce when he positioned child care as a threat to the traditional family. But, more than 40 years later, the idea of providing services to kids isn’t as threatening. It’s not just that we’ve seen the number of women in the workforce grow over the intervening years. It’s also that, having fallen victim to this tack before, children’s advocates have been careful to frame the services they’re pushing as education rather than child care.

“If you’re talking about child care, you’re talking about yourself,” Lombardi says. “But if you talk about preschool, you’re talking about your children. Preschool for all is something you can be for unambiguously.”

Read the next article in this series ...

The Abbott District's Fortunate Few

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