Book Chapter: Early Childhood Development and the Replication of Poverty
Holes in the Safety Net: Federalism and Poverty (Ezra Rosser, ed.) (Cambridge Univ. Press 2019)
27 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2019 Last revised: 25 Mar 2020
Date Written: August 22, 2019
Traditional understandings of federalism suggest that states are likely to take varying approaches to important policy questions, particularly in areas as sensitive as family law. And indeed, there are patterns of convergence and divergence in state approaches to supporting early childhood development. Surprisingly, however, the divergences do not always follow predictable political lines. These similarities and differences raise a puzzle that deserves attention by scholars and advocates.
In the United States, differences in early childhood play a key role in replicating poverty. Clear evidence establishes that child development in the first five years of life lays essential groundwork for future learning and the acquisition of life skills. In today’s economy, educational achievement is strongly correlated with adult earnings, but children from low-income families begin school at a significant disadvantage. Differences in early childhood explain much of the income-based achievement gap in education. And disadvantage during early childhood has a particularly pernicious effect on boys’ academic achievement. Early interventions can make a difference for all children, but these interventions must start early. And they must involve both parents and children, because one of the central insights of the literature on early childhood development is that children do not develop in a vacuum. Instead, child development is dependent on the relationship between a parent or other long-term caregiver and a child.
As compared with other wealthy countries, the United States makes limited investments in families with young children. Indeed, the level of public investment in children from birth to age three is inversely related to the importance of this period for child development. Public investments are highest for school-age children and lowest for children from birth to age three. Investments for children from ages three to five fall in between. Many wealthy countries mediate the impact of poverty on child development by providing universal health care, including prenatal care, home visiting for new parents, heavily subsidized childcare and preschool, and, most fundamentally, a child allowance, which ensures families have money to care for children. The United States does offer prenatal care and health care to virtually all low- and moderate-income citizens, as well as some food assistance and income support, largely through the Earned Income Tax Credit. But in most other areas, including housing, childcare, preschool, and basic income guarantees, government support for families falls far short of the need. Additionally, the support available to non-citizen families, especially undocumented individuals, is far more limited.
Numerous scholars and advocates have called for greater investments in families—and early childhood in particular—but rather than revisiting these arguments, this chapter takes a different tack, exploring the investments that are made and focusing on the web of funding across levels of government. As this chapter describes, the bulk of money available to support child development from the prenatal period until age three comes from the federal government, and there is limited variation in how this money is spent across the states. For the period from age three until entrance to kindergarten, the federal government and states largely share the cost of supporting early childhood development, leading to significant differences among the states, particularly in access to preschool for three- and four-year-olds. This chapter explores these funding differences, emphasizing the political economy of state choices and noting that, perhaps surprisingly, some red states are making a substantial effort to invest in early childhood education, especially for four-year-olds. The chapter closes with insights for both advocates and scholars.
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