The opportunity for young children and their families that we cannot afford to ignore

By Charles Bruner, Child and Family Policy Center

One of the biggest drivers to the American economy and American prosperity over the last 50 years has been the entry of women into the paid American workforce, dramatically expanding the number of workers in society and the pool of skilled workers to drawn upon for innovation and growth. This, however, also has meant new demands on families with children – particularly in the child’s earliest and most formative years. In two-parent families, parents have worked hard to balance bread-winning and care-giving roles – often while starting out at entry-level and low-wage positions and themselves needing experience and additional education and training to move up. Single parents have done the same, but usually without the two sources of economic support needed to provide for even for the most basic needs and opportunities. Because of these factors, overall in the United States, young children are the age group in society most likely to be in poverty, and poverty figures do not consider the additional costs of child care borne by families with young children.

While parents remain their child’s first and most important teacher, nurse, safety officer and guide to the world, they also are responsible for their child’s security – food, clothing, housing and safe and supportive supervision and care arrangements on a 24-7 basis. Far too many parents struggle in juggling to meet these essential care-giving and bread-winning roles.

The federal budget for 2016 includes proposals that will place upwards of $5 billion annually toward supporting families with young children to meet their children’s child care and other needs in these earliest years of life – and the discretionary fund investments in the budget provide additional funding to make child care and other early childhood services more accessible and of high quality. The proposals more than double the investments the federal government currently is making, through states and communities, to support young children’s early education and development and begin to narrow the gap in investments society makes in these earliest learning years to support young children and their families.

Investments in young children hold the potential to address two of American society’s greatest challenges – the preparation of the next generation to compete and lead in a knowledge-based world economy and the opportunity for the United States to embrace its growing diversity.

Research is clear on the critical importance of the first five years of life to cognitive, social and emotional development – and the current vulnerability that too many children, particularly from lower socio-economic backgrounds, face in this respect. Families want to make investments in their children’s development and be their child’s first teacher, but the United States needs to establish greater opportunities and supports to do so.

Demographics show that young children are the most diverse age group in society (as well as the most likely to live in poverty). While it may not be possible to eliminate poverty overnight, ensuring that all young children start school healthy and prepared for success provides the opportunity to achieve that goal over the next generation. This means investing in their success, through supporting their families as their families work to get by and get ahead. Concerted actions to create equity of opportunity that commence in those first years of life – where one-half of the birth to five population is of color – can move America much farther to becoming a post-racial society that values its diversity as a strength.

Fittingly, at the 25th Anniversary Kids Count Conference, Angela Glover Blackwell stated it simply, “If we can’t raise our kids of color to be part of the middle class, there won’t be one.”

The 2016 federal budget has created the opportunity to commence a truly substantive and critical policy dialogue – across political affiliations and perspective on other issues – on what young children and their families need to grow and succeed. This is a dialogue we cannot afford to ignore.

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