Supporting Young Children and Families: An Investment Strategy That Pays

Julia B. Isaacs
Julia B. Isaacs Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Urban Institute

January 8, 2009

In the United States, public investment in children typically does not begin until they are age five or six and enter a public school system. Until that time, we regard the care of young children as the almost exclusive domain of parents, relying on them to provide an environment that will promote healthy physical, intellectual, psychological, and social development. Good care early in life helps children to grow up acquiring the skills to become tomorrow’s adult workers, caregivers, taxpayers, and citizens. Yet today, many parents are stretched thin, in both time and money, trying to care for their young children, while early in their own careers. Parents across the socioeconomic spectrum struggle to balance both their children’s developmental needs and the demands of their employers.

Increasingly, research has demonstrated that investing in high-quality services for young children and their parents produces significant returns, both to individuals and to the larger economy. For instance, biomedical research shows that the development of neural pathways in the brains of infants and toddlers is influenced by the quality of their interactions with other people and their surroundings. Rigorous evaluations of a number of early childhood programs reinforce the lessons of brain research. Children who participate in effectively designed preschool programs achieve more in elementary school, are less likely to be held back a grade or to need special education, and are more likely to graduate from high school. Addressing gaps in skills at an early age gives more children from disadvantaged families a fighting chance to achieve the American Dream.

Despite this growing body of research on the importance of the early years on development and achievement, the federal government has provided little direct support to young children and families. However, there has been a significant change at the state government level, with a majority of states adopting public pre-kindergarten programs and other forms of early childhood intervention. In addition, attitudes toward public investment in the pivotal early childhood years are shifting, and the time is ripe for federal leadership in developing policies to support young children and their families as a key part of a domestic policy agenda. Below, I outline three policy proposals that have proved cost-effective and that can help to reduce burdens on young families.