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A Bipartisan Case for Early Childhood Development

The Brief

Of the 73.6 million children in the U.S. today, almost 20 million are under the age of 5. As the future innovators, workers, and leaders upon whom our nation’s long-term security and prosperity depends, they are America’s most important asset. But America’s youngest children are also vulnerable and too many of them are growing up in environments and under circumstances that don’t promote healthy early development. BPC’s Early Childhood Initiative, led by Rep. George Miller and Sen. Rick Santorum explores how, as a nation, we can better support young children and their families to make sure that all Americans start the journey of life with a fair shot at realizing their full potential and becoming successful, productive adults.

Since we first met as members of Congress more than two decades ago, we have watched our nation undergo profound changes, particularly in the realm of work and family life. Many of those changes have been positive, bringing new prosperity and greater diversity to the fabric of American life and society. But we have also seen changes that create new challenges for parents who are trying to give their children the best possible start in life. Meanwhile, rapid advances in brain science have given parents, educators, and policymakers new appreciation for the importance of the earliest years of life in terms of providing the foundation for healthy emotional, cognitive, and social development.

Against this backdrop, we have become increasingly concerned about the difficult trade-offs facing millions of families and young children in America. Whether parents are able to stay at home or have to arrange for child care outside the home so they can work, many aren’t able to make the choices they believe would ensure their young children receive the quality care and learning opportunities that are critical for healthy early development. We teamed up to chair the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Early Childhood Initiative because we think few policy challenges are more important to our nation’s future than helping families overcome these barriers so that all American children can get the strong start they need to grow into successful, productive adults.

For some families, of course, good options are especially scarce and the disadvantages especially great. We now know that starting at birth, and indeed even during pregnancy, exposure to adverse influences—from poor nutrition and lack of parental nurturing to family trauma and substance abuse—can have lifelong effects. This means that many of our most vulnerable children have already fallen behind long before they enter school. There is little systemic or coordinated support to catch them or to help parents better engage and fulfill their essential role as their child’s first and most important teachers.

Our interest in early childhood development is rooted in our own experiences, personal and professional: We’re both fathers and former legislators—in fact, one of us is raising seven kids and the other served for a decade as chairman or ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, witnessing firsthand how government could work to help expand opportunities for children. And while we certainly had our share of policy differences when we served in Congress, both of us remember a time when it was possible for Democrats and Republicans to work together on critical issues of national interest. Early childhood development, we believe, is clearly that type of issue—one that ought to unite lawmakers across the political spectrum given the enormity of the stakes and our shared interest in better early childhood outcomes.

BPC’s Early Childhood Initiative has been asking: How can parents, childcare providers, educators, doctors, business leaders, public officials, and lawmakers work together to ensure that children are equipped to succeed—in school, in life, and in the workforce? Is it possible to provide a stronger and more comprehensive network of tools and support to help moms and dads give young children the developmental foundation to realize their full potential as adults? And can existing programs be enhanced and improved to produce more bang for the buck?

Many states and communities have recognized the importance of children’s earliest years and are innovating to better support families and build stronger communities. They are trying new approaches to support early childhood and enlisting a broader range of stakeholders, even as they deal with new crises like the current opioid epidemic. It’s incumbent on us to learn from these efforts, to collect the data and ask the hard questions, so the best ideas can be replicated and their impact expanded.

This report describes some of what we have learned about early childhood development and about opportunities to make a difference in the lives of young children. We also offer recommendations for advancing a federal policy agenda that is specifically focused on enhancing the quality of early childhood experiences. We are confident that bipartisan support can be found for such an agenda. After all, in the search for effective strategies to secure the long-term health and prosperity of our democracy, America’s youngest children, keepers of our common future, are an obvious place to start.

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