Early childhood development – a key to reducing a lot of social problems

Throughout Goodwill’s history, we have worked primarily with older youth and adults. Yet, the more experience we have and the more we learn, the more I have become convinced that if we are to substantially reduce the incidence of poverty in the U.S., we must dramatically increase our investment in children from the womb to kindergarten.

There is a large body of evidence illustrating the positive return to society of investments in high quality early childhood development programs for children in low-income households. For example, Nurse-Family Partnership (www.nursefamilypartnership.org) is a nurse-led, evidence-based home visitation program that works with expectant mothers from pregnancy until the child is two years old. Three decades of randomized controlled trials have shown incredibly positive long term impact, including:

  • 67% reduction in behavioral and intellectual problems in children at age 6
  • 59% reduction in arrests of children at age 15
  • 72% fewer convictions of mothers when children are at age 15
  • The Rand Corporation found a net return to society of $5.70 per dollar invested in Nurse-Family Partnership

More evidence comes from extensive research done by Professor James Heckman (www.heckmanequation.org), a Nobel laureate economist at University of Chicago. His work has confirmed high returns to society from investments in high quality early childhood development programs for children living in poverty. Professor Heckman emphasizes that many of America’s major economic and social problems – crime, teenage pregnancy, high school dropout rates, adverse health conditions – could be reduced as a result of early nurturing, learning experiences, and physical health from birth to age five – the most economically efficient time to develop cognitive and social skills, both of which are essential for success.

It’s sometimes useful to remind ourselves that no child had any choice about the circumstances into which he or she was born. Some were luckier than others. For children born into situations that lack advantageous educational and developmental resources, we can pay up front to help prevent problems and develop human potential or we can continue to pay much more downstream for public assistance, remedial education, rehabilitation, incarceration, and in all the insidious ways we all pay when economic growth is stymied by a poorly educated, under-skilled workforce.

Some say we have no money to do this. I say we can’t afford not to. Because there’s not enough to pay for everything everyone would like to do, we need to begin shifting more support from programs with marginal return to programs with demonstrated high long term benefits. Doing so will upset some people, but will result in a wiser, more effective use of the dollars that are available. The potential long term benefits are enormous.


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