Should Governments Invest In Early Childhood Development?

One of the sadder consequences, among many, of reduced government spending in America is the effect it has on children. Cutbacks on government spending generally mean less money for early-childhood development programs, home-nursing programs and other such programs that assist with the raising of the really young.

Increasingly, recent studies are showing some of the more dramatic consequences of neglecting these kinds of broad-based, pre-toddler-targeting social programs.* A child’s emotional and physiological development remain stunted (the effects lasting throughout life) unless he receives a certain level of reasonable and comforting care.  Such programs enable the kind of brain circuitry development necessary for productively living in and contributing to society.

From a more dispassionate, economic perspective, the multiplier effect of investing in such programs is potentially quite substantial. For every dollar invested much more comes back in return. The beneficiaries are less likely to commit crimes, their health expenses are lower and they are just basically nicer people – their neuro-emotional pathways have received the necessary attention it takes to develop and mature. These children also are more likely to do things like hold jobs, contribute to the economy and pay taxes. It just makes sense both morally and economically.

So why aren’t these sorts of programs more widespread? One reason might be that many Americans have a problem acknowledging that tax dollars might productively be used to fund extensive, social-based initiatives. But I think another, less-talked about reason is that working in early-childhood education holds almost zero prestige.

For example, I’m not sure that if the US government did an about-face and began investing heavily in early childhood development, the problem fully would be addressed. More than merely setting up the infrastructure, the way Americans view the profession of early childhood care-giving would have to change as well. The field would have to acquire more prestige.

There are two ways, as I see it, to incentivize more adults to enter any field, be it the academy, law, medicine, drug-dealing, or in this case home-nursing and early-early-education. They can be offered more transactional ability or more prestige. The first is usually an offer of money. Prestige, however, comes from the approval and respect of the larger society with which one identifies.

In Poland, for example, teachers get paid very little. But the profession is quite prestigious so those who could otherwise make more money doing something else still feel incentivized to teach. In the US, teachers not only get paid very little, but their jobs are not prestigious. Prestige in America generally correlates with income.**

Is the answer then, w/r/t pre-toddler and toddler development in America, to just invest a bunch of money in targeted social policy and worker salaries? Perhaps. But this seems kind of callow. Surely there are other ways to raise the admiration of one’s peers. Perhaps, in the way that every American learns from an early age that it’s really difficult to hit .300 in the major leagues, every American should also learn that it’s really difficult to raise an economically productive, socially compassionate and intellectually curious class of little humans.

* These studies are showing that many of the effects of childhood neglect become pretty much irreversible by the time a baby is two.

** The one counter-example I can think of off the top of my head is the military. Now imagine if there was something called the department of toddler development and it had the advertizing budget of the Pentagon…

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