Reviving the American Dream Starts at Birth
This article was originally published in Investor's Business Daily.
The American dream is dead. Or so 48% of America's millennials have concluded, according to a new Harvard survey.
Sadly, these young pessimists are right; hard work is no longer enough to break kids out of poverty. Just 4% of people born into the poorest 20% of households rise to the richest 20% as adults.
Many Americans elected President Donald Trump hoping he would restore the American dream. After all, policymakers have tried — and failed — to boost economic mobility by promoting school choice, expanding college loan programs, increasing the minimum wage, and more.
These policy efforts come too late. Brain development in a child's first five years predicts later educational outcomes and career prospects. Efforts to ease the climb up the economic ladder must focus on these years and promote innovative approaches to child and family policy, philanthropy, and social impact that are based on what works best for children and families.
Children born to poor families start life at a severe disadvantage. According to a Harvard University study, children who experience just four risk factors — say poverty, single parents, low maternal education and mistreatment — have an almost 50% chance of experiencing cognitive, emotional or language delays.
Poverty is a bigger barrier than racism. The academic skill gap between poor and rich kindergartners is about twice as large as the black-white achievement gap. The gap doesn't significantly narrow or grow as children age — inequalities that exist on the first day of kindergarten persist throughout school.
Poor kids fare worse later in life than well-off kids. Less than half of kids from the lowest-earning families attend college — while nearly 100% of rich kids do. Just 60% of 30-year-olds from low-income families have jobs, compared to 85% of their peers from high-earning families.
But by supporting healthy development in children under 5, we can put disadvantaged kids on the path to success.
Programs that build healthy brains narrow achievement gaps. In Pennsylvania, for instance, a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged children who participated in Pre-K programs scored proficient or advanced on third-grade reading tests compared to their peers who did not participate in the programs.
Unfortunately, less than half of poor children have access to early childhood education programs. So expanding access to these programs is crucial.
But we need to do more.
With more mothers working outside the home, there's an increased demand for child care. Businesses can help. By offering child care on site or providing support for child care among employee benefits, businesses can retain employees and help children develop critical skills.
Ninety percent of employees said that access to child care made it more likely for them to continue working, according to a new report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Child care, like care from any adult, also curates "soft" skills in children, which 90% of executives say are "equally or more important than technical skills" when trying to find a job.
Governments, nonprofits, and other organizations must refocus their energies as well.
Consider the Nurse-Family Partnership Program, which pairs nurses with vulnerable mothers and children. Children utilizing the program experienced fewer childhood injuries, better overall health, and improved school readiness.
Or look at the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program. Nurses and social workers visit the homes of pregnant women and families with young children to improve their health and educational readiness. The program has boosted household economic productivity and school readiness among children.
Or consider the platform Vroom, which provides parents and caregivers with ways to boost early learning. It teaches parents how to transform everyday activities into brain-builders. For instance, it encourages parents to let their kids turn off the lights — and then discuss why that action creates darkness.
Such programs boost parent involvement in children's development and set kids up for success.
Fiscal conservatives needn't shy away from these programs. Every dollar invested in early education for disadvantaged children yields a 13% annualized return, because those kids grow into more productive adults.
Social conservatives shouldn't shy away either. These programs reinforce traditional family values — they empower parents to dedicate care to their children and they also engage the community in children's success.
To secure the American dream for the next generation, we must first ensure a strong start in the first five years of life. Scaling early childhood programs that work, engaging and supporting parents and caregivers of young children, and innovating and partnering across health, education, and other sectors are all required.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation explored the connection between high-quality child care and workforce development in its report, Workforce of Today, Workforce of Tomorrow: The Business Case for High-Quality Child Care.