Early Childhood Education, Economic Development, and the Need for Universal Programs: With a Focus on New England

By Macewan, Arthur | Economics, Management and Financial Markets, March 2015 | Go to article overview

Early Childhood Education, Economic Development, and the Need for Universal Programs: With a Focus on New England


Macewan, Arthur, Economics, Management and Financial Markets


"From birth to age 5, children rapidly develop foundational capabilities on which subsequent development builds. In addition to their remarkable linguistic and cognitive gains, they exhibit dramatic progress in their emotional, social, regulatory, and moral capacities. All of these critical dimensions of early development are intertwined, and each requires focused attention."

Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development1

1. Introduction

It is well established that the experiences of children in their early years, before they enter kindergarten, are very important in affecting their long-term cognitive and social development.2 Children's development, in turn, affects not only their personal well-being but also their capacity to contribute to the well-being of society in general.

Less well recognized, however, is that society's investments in early childhood education can be an essential component in economic development - providing an important foundation for society's economic well-being over the long run and also making more immediate contributions to economic expansion.3 Like state government expenditures on the physical foundations of economic activity (roads, bridges, sewers), expenditures on the social foundations of economic activity - education in particular - shape the course of the economy long into the future. The economic development impact of education is widely acknowledged for K-12 schooling and for higher education, but the economic development role of early childhood education is often given insufficient attention.

Much of the rationale for providing public support for early childhood education is the same as the rationale for providing support for K-12 and higher education. Until fairly recently in our history, however, state support in the early years was viewed as unnecessary and often as undesirable. Early childhood education - especially education under the broad rubric of "socialization" - was viewed as the responsibility of parents, not of society at large. Regardless of the validity of this view in earlier times, it is no longer a practical basis for early childhood education for at least the following reasons:

* Most parents of young children work in the paid labor force. As shown in Table 1, in 2010, 64.6% of children under six in the United States had all of their parents in the paid labor force. For the New England states, the figures were higher - ranging from 67.2% in Connecticut to 71.6% in Rhode Island. Even most parents with very young children are in the paid labor force. In 2010, 61.1% of women in the country with children under three were in the paid labor force; the corresponding figure for men was 94.9%.4 Some form of early childhood education - at least adequate care - is thus a necessity for most families. Moreover, it seems reasonable to assume that these figures would have been higher had more parents had access to what they considered adequate child care arrangements.

* Increasingly, for economic success people need a high level of formal education. In part, this increase is due to the higher level of cognitive skills needed for well-paying, stable jobs today as compared to earlier times. In addition, the social/behavioral skills developed in school are increasingly valued. Early childhood education is - or can be - an important component of formal education.

The necessity of child care for children whose parents are in the paid labor force and the increasing importance of well-developed cognitive and social/ behavioral skills in the workforce lie at the basis of the role of early childhood education as an essential component of economic development. Taken together, this reality demands that high quality early childhood education is universally available. (Of course, these considerations do not mean that early childhood education should be compulsory. …

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