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Too Little, Too LateOver the past twelve years, community conversations about school readiness, public school reform, gangs, drugs and family abuse rarely, if ever, discuss the root genesis of these issues. Rather than understanding the impact of access to quality pre-natal care, or discussing the importance of positive role models and healthy home environments, as well as early attachment, relationships and experiences between young children and their parents or primary caregivers, we focus on reversing alarming high school drop out rates, improving 4th grade reading levels, and, most recently, on greater investments in pre-school learning, thereby closing the learning gap at an early age. It is not that these issues are not important; they are. But, they are not enough.
Experts on early childhood development agree on one overriding principle: You have to begin at the beginning. Otherwise, it is too little, too late. The patterns for behavior and learning are well established by the time a child reaches three years old. We must pay more attention to the earliest stages of life for that is when the raw material for schools, jobs, healthy families and even our nation's future is developed.
The Case for Early InvestmentsFailing children in these early years has multiple repercussions, all of which are negative.
Yet when we invest at the beginning, it pays dividends. Healthy, thriving babies, lead to strong and vibrant families and communities, and for every $1 we invest in a child's early growth, economists focusing on community development options have demonstrated a $4–$7 long-term savings because of lower rates of juvenile delinquency, higher rates of high school graduation, and greater earning power and financial stability later in life.
According to experts, the most important developmental period in a child's life begins before birth and lasts until he or she turns three. A child's brain is more active in these years than at any other point—in fact, it grows to 80% of its adult size. During pregnancy, the mother's nutrition and physical health will affect the health of her child. Moreover, after birth, environmental factors including poverty, maternal education, exposure to domestic violence and neglect have a direct impact on childhood development and can create lasting barriers to a child's future success.
It is during these first three years that young children learn to trust others, to be confident and curious, to grow emotionally secure and socially strong. We can significantly influence their capacity for learning, language and self-confidence. In short, the first three years are critical to ensuring that a child has the tools to grow into a happy, productive, thriving adult.
Several years ago, Nobel Laureate and University of Chicago economist James Heckman began work that connects early childhood development with the realm of economic returns. Heckman researched the effect of government spending on a broad array of human capital programs (those that educate and build skills). He found that investing in early care and education, especially for the disadvantaged, results in significant benefits and savings to society as a whole. Recently, Heckman's findings have appeared in leading publications including Science, the Wall Street Journal and the Zero To Three Journal. His work and conclusions highlight that investing in disadvantaged young children has a high economic return—as much as 15-17% when focused solely on earnings gains.¹
Heckman has also used cost-benefit analysis to determine which human capital programs benefit society the most. He concluded that, "the returns to human capital investments are greatest for the young for two reasons: 1) younger persons have a longer horizon over which to recoup the fruits of their investments; and 2) skill begets skill."²
Early childhood experts have known for decades how crucial the first three years of life are. But now, this validation by Heckman and other leading economists fortifies the argument for investing in the early years. Supporting the healthy development of very young children is a wise investment decision.
The Investment OpportunityArmed with the latest research about cognitive and neurological development, and a vision of where smart investments can have the greatest net positive impact, leaders of the Los Angeles community have the opportunity to fundamentally and positively shape the future of our city.
The Baby Futures Summit will, for the first time, bring together Los Angeles' leaders in the philanthropic, political and business communities to explore ways to build a better city for our families by focusing on the babies in our communities. Come hear from national experts about the critical nature of investing in the pre-natal to three years, and discover and discuss opportunities for meaningful, positive impact on this subject.
ZERO TO THREE
Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis
The Atlas Family Foundation
¹ Heckman, J. (January 10, 2006). Catch 'em Young. The Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition, A14.
² Heckman, J. (2000). Policies to Foster Human Capital. Research in Economics. 54: 3-56.
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An initiative of the LA Partnership for Early Childhood Investment.