08 October 2009

Increasing Political Will for Investment in Early Childhood Development Programs

Nationwide public opinion polling conducted in the last year and a half on behalf of the Partnership for America’s Economic Success, and in conjunction with Professor James Heckman, offers important findings about what the public, policy influentials, and policymakers understand about the importance of investing in early childhood interventions in order to support the optimal cognitive, social, emotional and physical development of children (ROI Ventures and Neimand Collaborative, 2009, October).

Here are some of their findings:

- On a scale of 1 to 100, policymakers are 75% of the way towards being ready to make large investments in early childhood education and services.

- Policymakers understand the long range benefits that will accrue for children and society if we make strategic investments in early childhood, but they are hesitant to make large new investments in services without a clear mandate from policy influentials and the public.

- On the other hand, early childhood investment has a relatively low amount of salience for the general public as a political issue. The public is significantly more interested in seeing public investment to solve problems with the economy, health care and crime.

- The public and influentials are about 25% of the way towards being willing to support large public investments in early childhood services.

- There is wide-ranging support for the notion that children need access to high quality early care, education and support services; however, there is widespread disagreement about who should pay for those services.

- Roughly 50% of the public is willing to pay higher taxes in order to provide expanded services to children between birth and five; the other half is unwilling to do so.

Many of the strategies that have been pursued by advocates of early childhood investment have failed to convince the public of the value of investing in early childhood. Frequently, advocates have suggested that the non-poor should invest in high quality early services for the poor in order to close the academic achievement gap or create more equal outcomes between non-poor and poor children. However, since many members of the public are currently struggling to provide services for their own children, they are not persuaded that they should pay to provide services for poor children as well.

Many advocates have also spent a lot of time focusing on the negative outcomes associated with not establishing healthy foundational social and emotional skills instead of emphasizing that the time from birth to five is a window of opportunity to maximize development. Messages about “use it or lose it” brain development, which suggest that children who do not experience optimal development are doomed to lives of failure are not convincing to the public since they are skeptical that a child’s life outcomes could be “determined” before they are even in kindergarten.

Research on effective framing demonstrates that the public will support investments in early brain development only if they understand that providing services to support early brain development will help fix societal problems such as the current economic crisis, crime and health problems. In other words, we can fundamentally shift public will towards investment in birth to five services if we can help people understand how they and society at large will benefit in the long run from those investments.


Barnett, W.S. (1996). Lives in the Balance: Age-27 Benefit-Cost Analysis of the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program. Monographs of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, 11. Ypsilanti, Mich.: High/Scope Press.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2004). Young Children Develop in an Environment of Relationships. Working Paper No. 1. Retrieved [August 21, 2009] from www.developingchild.net/pubs/wp/environment_of_relationships.pdf

ROI Ventures and Neimand Collaborative. (2009, October). The Heckman Equation: Talking Dollars and Sense about Investing in Early Childhood Development. Washington D.C.: Partnership for America’s Economic Success. [Accessed October 5, 2009] http://www.partnershipforsuccess.org/uploads/20091007_100709HeckmanPPTDRAFT.ppt

Ramey, C.T. & Ramey, S.L. (2004, October). Early Learning and School Readiness: Can Intervention Make a Difference? Merrill Palmer Quarterly, 50, 4, 471-491.

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