Thursday, January 19, 2017


A new report says investments in early learning are not meeting the needs of families across the nation, and many eligible families are not receiving services.

The report, “The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education Joint Interdepartmental Review of All Early Learning Programs for Children Less Than 6 Years of Age,” reviewed all federal programs identified by the Government Accountability Office and concluded that only eight programs have the primary purpose of promoting early learning for children from birth to age 6:

Child Care and Development Fund
Head Start
Early Head Start
Preschool Development Grants
Department of Defense Child Development Program
Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
Part B, Section 619 of the IDEA
Family and Child Education (FACE)

Other Key Findings:

Child development researchers, neuroscientists, and economists agree that high-quality early learning programs are a compelling investment for the nation’s economic and educational success. Research demonstrates that, in particular, low-income children benefit from attending high-quality, well-resourced early learning programs prior to entering kindergarten.

 Notable economists, including the President’s Council on Economic Advisors and a Nobel Laureate, find the expansion of access to high-quality early learning programs to be among the smartest investments that we can make as a nation for our economic and social well-being.7,8

Starting Early Benefits Children and Maximizes Federal Investments 

This year, nearly 4 million children will be born in the United States,9 and according to the 2014 Current Population Survey Estimate, 23.81 percent of children under five are living in poverty. Neuroscientists have shown that the brain’s most rapid growth and architecture for learning and social skills occur in the first five years of life. These years represent a critically important window of opportunity to develop a child’s full potential and shape key academic, social, and cognitive skills that determine a child’s success in school. Too many children, however, are born into families without enough resources to secure high-quality early learning opportunities. Additionally, some children are born with medical conditions, disabilities, or developmental delays that require specialized attention and intervention early in order to maximize their potential. The gap in development between low-income and more economically advantaged children is detectable as early as nine months of age, and by kindergarten entry there is a full standard deviation gap between these children’s early literacy and math skills.10 Together, these findings point to the importance of expanding access to a continuum of high quality early learning experiences for our most vulnerable children, in order to bridge opportunity gaps and prevent achievement gaps before they form. 

Affordable, Quality Early Learning Programs Remain a Significant Need for Poor and Low- Income Working Families 

In addition to helping prepare children for success in school, early learning programs make it possible for parents and caregivers to remain employed. Today, children increasingly need financial support from both parents, whether or not they live in the same household.11 In 2014, among families with children under age six, both parents were employed in 59 percent ofmarried-parent households, and 62 percent of single mothers were employed.12 Given these findings, many infants, toddlers, and preschoolers need high-quality early care and learning programs, both to ensure their safety and security while their parents work, and to help them develop strong social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Approximately half of infants and toddlers in 2012 were in some form of non-parental care settings, and this proportion increases with age.13
For millions of parents, affordable early learning programs are critical to maintaining a stable job. Low-income single mothers are more likely to have a job, and to work full-time, when they have child care subsidies.14 Low-income mothers with preschool-age children are more likely to work nonstandard hours, due at least in part to the high cost of non-parental child care.15 

However, early learning programs, particularly high-quality programs, are expensive and low-income families often cannot afford them without subsidies. Even with these programs there are many children that do not have access to the early learning programs they need to succeed. 16 Studies show that the cost of child care, particularly high-quality child care, accounts for an enormous proportion of family income that families must balance with other basic needs, such as housing and food. In 2011, families in poverty spent on average more than 30 percent of their income on child care.17 The annual average cost of full-time, center-based infant child care not taking into account the cost of quality is more than the cost of public college tuition and fees in most states.

 The cost of child care fees for two children exceeds annual median rent payments in every state, and exceeds mortgage costs for homeowners in 24 states and the District of Columbia.19 Child care subsidies can help defray these high costs of child care, but the average subsidy just more than $5,000 a year per child under age six - is far less than the cost of a quality program. Due to funding limitations, only one in six eligible children receives a child care subsidy. Head Start serves fewer than half of the income eligible children. While Head Start helps fill in some of that gap, millions of eligible low-income children who need help to afford high quality early learning programs do not receive any federal assistance. Simply put- high quality early learning experiences are out of reach for too many working families, which not only harms their work stability, but also puts their children at a disadvantage, well before the first day of kindergarten, that is difficult to recover from in the school years. 
Children in Poor and Low-Income Families Can Benefit the Most from High-Quality Early Learning, but Access is Out of Reach for Too Many 

A significant percentage of children in the United States are living in poor or low-income families, and live under conditions associated with economic hardship. For example:
  •   Roughly one-in-five children under age six are living in poor households.20 Almost half of children under age six live in low-income (at or below 200 percent of poverty) households.21
  •   In the 2013-2014 school year, an estimated 1.4 million children were homeless, 39 percent of whom were between the ages of one and five.22 Among families with children under age six, the risk for homelessness is highest; children under age one are the most likely to experience homelessness.23
In 2013, about 21 percent of children lived in food-insecure households.24 

While high quality early education is beneficial for all children, it benefits low-income families and at-risk children even more than other groups. The gaps in access to early learning services exacerbate the uneven foundation on which children from poor and low-income families will build their knowledge and skills as they enter kindergarten, which leads to more costly “catch up” interventions later in school. It also means poor and low-income families struggle to maintain employment and enrollment in job training programs and ensure that their children are cared for. Investments in federal early learning programs have helped millions of children, but an even greater percentage of eligible children under age six still do not have access, and as such experience an unfair opportunity gap before their first day of kindergarten, due to current funding levels.

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