It is startling to think that even before a child sits down on her first day of kindergarten and reaches for her crayons, we can already reasonably predict what she will earn as an adult. Research shows that early language development, understanding of math concepts, and social emotional stability at age five are the greatest predictors of academic success in school. In fact, skills learned before age five can forecast future adult earnings, educational attainment, and employment.1

These findings have real implications for our economy. Human capital—the level of education, skills, and talents of our workforce—is a main driver of economic growth, so in order to ensure we have a healthy workforce and thriving economy in the decades to come, we must begin by developing human capital during early childhood.

Yet rising economic inequality and unstable economic growth define our society today. Children have different enrichment experiences during this critical time period based on where their families sit on the income ladder. About half of children In the United States receive no early childhood education.2 These different experiences translate into a growing educational achievement gap between poor and rich children.

One study—often referred to as the famous “30 million word gap” study by University of Kansas child psychology professors Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley—finds that children living in poverty hear 30 million fewer words by age four than higher-income children.3 On average, a child from a low-income family knows 500 words by the age of 3, compared with 700 words for a child from a working-class family and 1,100 for a child from a professional family.4 Research by Stanford University infant psychology professor Anne Fernald and her colleagues found that by even age two, there is a six-month gap in language proficiency between lower-income and higher-income children.

In short, the educational achievement gap between poor and rich children begins well before kindergarten.

How can we better prepare our nation’s youngest generation for success? According to University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman, educational and enrichment investments during early childhood yield the highest return in human capital compared to other investments over time.5 Why? Because as the brain forms, children learn cognitive skills such as language and early math concepts as well as “soft” skills such as curiosity, self-control, and grit. Both skillsets are critical for later academic and workplace success. By the time a child enters Kindergarten, the gap in school readiness is large and well established, growing by less than 10 percent between Kindergarten and high school.6

School readiness is enhanced by what happens in preschool, but the two factors that most explain the achievement gaps are parenting styles and home-learning environ-ments.7 Yet many parents are unaware of the importance of early brain development and of the tremendous impact they can have in building their young child’s brain and early vocabulary with simple actions such as talking, reading and singing.

Even if parents are aware of the importance of these activities, they may have difficulty carving out time at home with their children as they juggle jobs and their children’s needs. Today, more children than ever are raised in single-parent families or in homes where both parents work. Parents today are constantly balancing work and family care often without access to family-friendly workplace policies to balance the two.

To be sure, if parents are unable to provide enriching home experiences then children can gain valuable developmental and learning support in quality child care and preschool settings. Yet many simply cannot afford childcare. In 2011, the average cost for a 4-year-old in professional childcare ranged from about $4,000 to $15,000 a year.8 Such costs put a major strain on family budgets, especially for low-income families, which spent nearly a third of their income on childcare (30 percent) in 2011, compared to middle- and higher-income families, which spent less than one-tenth (8 percent) of their income.9

What’s more, low-income families who do strain to pay for child care often find that the care they can afford is, at best, a safe place for their child to stay while they are at work rather than an enriching environment for their young child to learn critical skills. Sadly, these families often discover that the affordable childcare provider offers poor or mediocre support to help their child in the critical stages of early childhood development.10

In order to have a productive workforce and thriving economy tomorrow, we need to invest in our children today. There are viable policy solutions that could expand early childhood education and enrichment opportunities to all, rather than a select few at the top. First, voluntary home visits by child development professionals could increase awareness among working-class parents of how they can foster their children’s development at home, such as talking, reading, and singing to their children before bedtime.

Second, it is important to expand access to high-quality, affordable early child-hood education. These programs better prepare children for school, putting children more than a year ahead in mathematics and other subjects.11 Low-income families would greatly benefit from expanded access to quality childcare, Early Head Start, and high-quality preschool programs.

Lastly, parents can only be better first teachers of their children if they have the time to be with their children. Policies such as workplace flexibility, paid family and medical leave, and paid sick days could help all working parents better manage work and family obligations and spend more time with their children. Today, professional workers are the most likely to have access to these policies, often considered additional employee “perks” by employers.

The importance of investing in early childhood matters for our overall economic competitiveness. The United States should be making smart economic investments in early childhood to ensure that all children have an equitable start before their first day of school. For the American Dream to shine well into the 21st century, it is no exaggeration to say that every American, young and old, needs our youngest ones to be the best and the brightest as adults no matter their family background and income level.

  1. Douglas Almond and Janet Currie, Human Capital Development Before Age Five, NBER Working Paper (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2010), http://www.nber.org/papers/w15827.pdf.
  2. Donna Cooper, Adam Hersh, and Ann O’Leary, The Competition That Really Matters (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress, The Center for the Next Generation, July 2012), http://thenextgeneration.org/publications/the-competi-tion-that-really-matters.
  3. Betty Hart and Todd Risley, “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3,” American Educator, Spring 2003, http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/spring2003/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf.
  4. Clinton Foundation and Next Generation, Preparing America’s Children for Success in the 21st Century: Too Small to Fail, October 2013.
  5. James J. Heckman, “The Case for Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children,” in Big Ideas for Children: Investing in Our Nation’s Future (First Focus, 2008), http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.182.3796&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
  6. Sean F. Reardon, “No Rich Child Left Behind” April 2013. Available at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/27/no-rich-child-left-behind/.
  7. Jane Waldfogel and Elizabeth Washbrook, “Early Years Policy,” Child Development Research Volume 2011, Article ID
    343016, 2011.
  8. Melissa Boteach and Shawn Fremstad, “Putting Women at the Center of Policymaking,” in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2014), 244–79.
  9. Lynda Laughlin, Who’s Minding the Kids? Child Care Arrangements: Spring 2011, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P70-135, Washington, DC, 2013.
  10. Jonathan Cohn, The Hell of American Day Care: An investigation into the barely regulated, unsafe business of looking after our children, The New Republic, April 15, 2013.
  11. Ann O’Leary, “Our Economic Future Depends on Early Investments in Kids,” Next Generation, February 4, 2014, http://thenextgeneration.org/blog/post/our-economic-future-depends-on-early-investments-in-kids/.