How Stronger Early Childhood Policies Could Help Kids

A diverse group of preschoolers in a classroom
A diverse group of preschoolers in a classroom

When it comes to early childhood policies that put children on the path to success, the U.S. is failing American children and families.

Researching educational inequality for our new book Too Many Children Left Behind (Russell Sage Foundation, 2015), my colleagues and I found that children of less-educated parents in the U.S. lag behind children of more-educated parents by more than a year in both reading and math skills before they even start kindergarten--a significantly larger gap than is seen in our peer countries, such as the UK, Canada, and Australia.

The implication is clear: If the odds are stacked against disadvantaged children before they even step foot in school, we must look for remedies in early childhood. Luckily, there is no mystery as to how to do this. We can look to the track records of our peers in the U.K., Canada, and Australia, who have demonstrated that we can successfully invest in our children's future by strengthening early childhood policies.

Take parental leave. Like most European countries, the U.K. guarantees nine months of paid maternity leave. Canada is even more generous, providing a year of paid leave to mothers and fathers. Australia offers a year of maternity leave, with four months paid. The U.S., in contrast, provides just twelve weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and only to employees in workplaces with more than 50 workers--meaning about 40 percent of the workforce isn't covered.

The lack of paid parental leave in the U.S. persists despite abundant evidence that it benefits children's health and development. The strongest evidence comes from Norway, where paid maternity leave led to reductions in later high school dropout. Studies examining leave extensions across a range of countries find reduced infant mortality. Mothers who have access to more generous paid leave are also more likely to breast feed, with well-documented health benefits.

The U.S. is also at the bottom of the pack for preschool benefits. Research shows that universal preschool benefits children, especially the most disadvantaged. But here again, the U.S. is an outlier. The U.K. provides universal preschool for three and four year olds, and is extending that to disadvantaged two year olds. Both Canada and Australia also offer more generous support than the U.S. Studies find that children who attend preschool go further in school, have higher rates of employment, and earn more money in adulthood. However since most American parents still have to purchase preschool privately, the well-off are most likely to access it.

The U.S. also lags in ensuring that families with young children have sufficient incomes. While the U.S. provides some support through the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit for low-income families, these programs are much less generous than those in our peer countries, and leave out the lowest income families. As a result, child poverty is much higher in the U.S. than it is in the U.K., Canada, or Australia.

There is already strong precedent for many of these policies within the U.S. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island provide paid leave to new parents, funded through payroll contributions by employees. We can take these programs to scale nationally by providing pay for FMLA leave, funded through payroll contributions to Social Security or a similar fund, and then work to extend coverage to workers not covered under the FMLA.

In places as varied as Tulsa, Oklahoma and Boston, Massachusetts, we have seen that high-quality preschool programs can be implemented at scale. But rather than asking cities and states to foot the bill, we should provide federal funds to help local school districts provide universal coverage to 3 and 4 year olds. We can then re-focus the Head Start program to serve low-income children under the age of 3, alongside evidence based parenting programs for children under age 3, and focus child care subsidies to help working families afford quality child care outside of preschool and school hours.

Finally, although a work-based safety net does a good job of boosting incomes for working families, it provides too little support for parents who cannot work full-time, full-year. Parents of young children are particularly at risk of poverty, and particularly vulnerable to its effects. So in addition to raising minimum wages (as several states have done), we need to extend income supports for families with young children. We can make the EITC and child tax credits more generous (as several states have done with state programs). And we should work toward instituting a universal child benefit (an income supplement that goes to all families with children) as has long been the case in the UK and other peer countries.

If our country wants to give all children a shot at success and disrupt the intergenerational transmission of poverty, we need to provide more support to families with young children. The evidence from other countries is clear -- these kinds of policies will help close achievement gaps, and help reduce poverty in the next generation.

Jane Waldfogel is a professor of social work and public affairs at Columbia University and author of Too Many Children Left Behind (Russell Sage Foundation, September 2015)