America loves an underdog. Florida Gulf Coast reaching the Sweet 16 in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Or legal clerk Erin Brockovich taking on utility companies on behalf of consumers. The spirit of determination and zeal typically personified by underdogs resonates with a country that prides itself on being the land of opportunity. Babies may not spring to mind as underdogs -- although helpless and vulnerable at birth, they seem to represent limitless potential. Yet while all babies need nurturing and support to realize this potential, too many must also overcome huge obstacles as soon as they enter the world. For some, it may be a health or physical problem, and for too many others it may be the ominous weight of poverty that makes their success much more challenging.
As champions for the underdog, one would assume that, as a nation, we would try to increase babies' odds for success. Yet, the opposite is true. We have actually put a lid on opportunities that help young children thrive and learn starting at birth. Year after year, Congress has chosen to keep aggregate discretionary funding for early care and learning programs relatively stagnant -- so that in spite of increases in individual programs, in real dollars we are still where we were 10 years ago. A few years ago, Congress capped total spending so babies trying to beat the odds bump up against an artificial ceiling on access to support. It's difficult to understand why. Of all the spending priorities Congress faces, investment in the future workforce -- today's babies -- seems like the last place it makes sense to pinch pennies. It's time for Congress to invest in the underdogs.
Let's take a look at the facts. The country's rate of return on investments on quality early childhood development is 7-10% per year. When babies have the best foundation from which to start, their ability to learn, work and contribute to the economy increases exponentially. Those who receive good healthcare, are part of strong families, and benefit from positive early learning experiences, are less likely to end up dropping out of school, spend time in prison, or become eligible for unemployment and welfare benefits. No system is perfect, but one that is stingy toward those who need investment most is unwise and short sighted.
Consider Ginger and John West from St. George, Utah. When their first daughter was born, Ginger -- a full time mom -- had a 10-year-old from another marriage at home. She was used to being a single parent, but sharing the duties and responsibilities with John was new for her. She was struggling with postpartum depression and her daughter, born with Down Syndrome, spent 18 days in the hospital before coming home. Ginger and John -- a plumber -- felt completely overwhelmed.
They entered Early Head Start (EHS) initially without realizing the full spectrum of benefits--or how lucky they were to be there. The program can serve only about 800 Utah children at one time out of about 25,000 who are eligible. They met their EHS home visitor, from the Learning Center for Families (TLC) in St. George, right in the hospital. Once their daughter was home, the home visitor came to their home every week for 90 minutes to help answer questions, provide them with resources, and work with their daughter to make sure she was on the right developmental track.
The value of EHS was, to say the least, life-altering. According to Ginger, "As a single parent I was fine, but with two little babies and a co-parent all of sudden -- well, I didn't know how to do it. Our home visiting consultant taught me so much and made a fine point to involve the fathers. I didn't know how to do that. She taught John about floor play and he participated in fatherhood meetings. He did so well, he recently won Utah's Head Start Association's Beating the Odds award."
Ginger and John didn't quality for EHS -- which serves families living below the federal poverty line - with their second child because they were doing so well. But armed with the parenting know-how and confidence from their earlier experience, Ginger and her family continued to grow and thrive. Their children are happy and healthy elementary school students, and Ginger was elected to the TLC policy council for two years and also served as a liaison to board of directors. She then moved onto to serve on the board of the Utah Head Start Association and "started absorbing everything. I didn't feel overwhelmed with it."
Talk about an underdog. But had the Wests not been able to access Early Head Start, their life today -- and their children's lives -- could be completely different -- and not for the better.
So as Congress returns in September and prepares to make critical appropriations decisions, it's important to acknowledge that their choice to maintain funding caps on non-defense discretionary spending (NDD) is preventing thousands of young children from accessing these critical supports. When one of every two babies and toddlers in the United States lives in a family that is poor or near-poor, we're talking about a large risk pool. Viewed in this light, these programs are not just nice-to-have: they are essential investments in the future growth and productivity of the nation.
The consequences of Congress' choices are clear:
We're a country that believes in giving everyone a fair shot at opportunity. But the research is unmistakable: without early support for parents in fostering strong development and the chance to participate in high-quality early care and learning programs, gaps can appear early, often even before a child's second birthday. That means that by the time some children reach preschool, they are already playing catch-up.
Yet we know of children from disadvantaged families whose participation in high-quality early care and learning from birth greatly increased the odds that they graduated from college, earned more money, and became healthier adults. These are the true underdog stories.
When families are given the tools to succeed, the country follows. And early learning opportunities, starting at birth, lay the foundation for later success in school and in life. Congress must lift the caps on non-defense discretionary spending and choose to invest in the underdogs -- our babies. There is simply too much at stake to continue these artificial ceilings on children's futures.