The Non-Nuclear Option

Promoting the healthy development of children is both an ethical imperative and a critical economic and social investment. A decent and wise society protects and nurtures all its children, particularly those disadvantaged early in life, so that they grow up to be productive adults, and because it's the right thing to do. Public policy regarding child development is currently plagued by a misguided debate -- some call it a culture war -- about whether child rearing is solely the responsibility of parents or should be shared more broadly across the community and society. Ultimately this debate is futile because science and common sense both tell us that, although parents are the most important influences on their child's development, no family raises children in isolation.

If we can temporarily suspend our ideological differences and look together at the science of human development, this oversimplistic argument could be redirected toward more productive dialogue based on both knowledge and values. To this end, a new convergence of research in neuroscience, human behavior, and economics provides three clear and irrefutable findings. First, young children develop in an environment of relationships. Second, early experiences sculpt the evolving architecture of the brain. Third, wise investments in young children are among the most cost-effective outlays a society can provide.

When young children's experiences are embedded in nurturing and stable relationships with caring adults, the maturing brain forms rich networks of neural circuits that build a strong foundation for lifelong, positive outcomes in physical and mental health, educational achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship, and competent parenting of the next generation. In contrast, when a young child's experiences are burdened by excessive stress, chemicals that disrupt developing brain architecture are released in the body. Stresses that produce such disruptions may result from the daily struggles faced by families coping with severe economic hardship, substance abuse, mental-health problems (especially maternal depression), and conditions in which children are victimized directly by neglect or abuse, or indirectly by repeated exposure to violence. In such circumstances, a child begins life with a weakened foundation that can result in later problems with learning and memory, as well as greater risk for stress-related physical and mental illness.

With rare exception, parents bear the lion's share of responsibility for raising healthy children. Ordinarily, their efforts are complemented by other nurturing adults, both through informal interactions and formal early care and education. Beyond this environment of relationships, a government role is often important because only affluent parents can afford all the supports their children require, and social investments can strengthen the capacity of most parents and communities to address their children's needs. When children live in deeply impoverished environments, effective government programs can be a lifeline to a more humane present and a brighter future.

Children's needs that are beyond the reach of most families' personal resources include health care and high-quality early care and education. When we, as a society, subsidize medical services and finance preschool education as public goods, we acknowledge their importance and recognize that most working families simply cannot pay all these costs out of pocket. High-quality child care is the least developed of these systems. When free options such as family members or generous neighbors or subsidized programs are not available, most working parents (extending well into the middle class) “settle” for the best arrangements they can afford. Too often such care does not meet minimal quality standards, and children who spend large amounts of time in these settings are disadvantaged compared with their age-mates who benefit from higher-quality experiences.

Children living in poverty are at particularly high risk for developmental problems, and the prevalence of long-term school difficulties is higher when poverty is experienced in the early preschool years. When children in low-income families are placed in low-quality child-care settings that provide little more than custodial care, an opportunity to break the intergenerational cycle of economic dependence is lost. In the long run, that loss is felt by both the children and society.

The responsibility for raising children rests on families, but it also requires the support of both voluntary community efforts and strategic government investments. In addition to health care and early education, specialized services for youngsters with developmental problems help maximize individual potential and build the nation's human capital. Government can also help reduce the stresses on low-income working families by increasing their material well-being, through policies such as the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit and other income supports.

Two-thirds of children living under the poverty level are in families with at least one working parent. The pathway to economic security is through education and skills that lead to well-paying jobs, not simply exhortations directed at these hard-working parents to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. The ultimate resolution of the intergenerational transmission of poverty is through policies that help families secure a brighter future for their children by building a strong foundation for success in the early years. There are reasonable debates about the best form of these social investments, but there should be no argument about their potential value.

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Public discussion about government involvement in the care and education of young children began in the 1960s with the establishment of Head Start for children living in poverty and the Handicapped Children's Early Education Program for children with disabilities. In recent decades, as the number of working mothers has increased, demands have grown for greater public investment in early-childhood programs for young, normally developing children across the economic spectrum. Over most of this 40-year period, the economic benefits of programs for children at risk have been articulated largely by early-childhood advocates. More recently, the message has come from economists, and their findings are powerful.

A remarkable convergence of results from several longitudinal studies indicates that investments in high-quality intervention for low-income children yield stunning rates of return. The longest term and most extensively analyzed data come from the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which provided a combination of center-based and home-visiting services to a high-risk group of children beginning at age 3 years, then followed both the program participants and control group through age 40. Over this extended period, the total benefit-cost ratio was calculated to be 17 to 1.

Of the $17 return for every dollar spent for Perry Preschool, $4 was realized by the program participants and $13 was returned to the public. The personal benefits were related largely to higher earned income. The public benefits included higher tax revenues and lower costs for special education, welfare support, and incarceration, with the latter accounting for the highest proportion of return.

University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman completed extensive analyses of data from multiple studies and concluded that “enriched pre-kindergarten programs available to disadvantaged children … are likely to generate substantial savings to society and to promote higher economic growth by improving the skills of the workforce.”

Taken together, these findings are particularly significant in the context of the current debate over the future of the Social Security system, whose long-term financial viability is much more dependent on the capacity of the nation's future workforce than on who owns or controls the investment of its present assets. When we ignore what science tells us about the effects of early-childhood investments on later adult economic productivity, we seriously limit the ability of the future workforce to support the well-being of both its children and its parents.

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In sum, there is no serious disagreement about the relation between investment in children and the development of healthy, well-educated, economically productive adults. Yet there is widespread resistance to significant public investment in the early years of life. Four sources of this resistance are worthy of attention.

The first obstacle is a strongly held set of beliefs about self-reliance and family privacy. This perspective assigns exclusive responsibility for the rearing of young children to their parents, and views government involvement in early care and education as an unacceptable violation of parental prerogatives and obligations. Within this context, when young children or their families need help, voluntary community supports are viewed as desirable but government action is judged to be intrusive and/or likely to foster dependence. Some skeptics are willing to accept public subsidy if it is channeled through trusted local institutions, some of which are secular and some faith-based.

The second obstacle is fiscal scarcity and resistance to taxes. Some say that children get less than their fair share because they don't vote. Yet evidence is accumulating that government investment in young children offers greater likelihood of significant financial payback than many public expenditures that fare much better in the battle for resources. For example, Federal Reserve Bank of Minnesota economists Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald calculated an 18-percent internal rate of return on an investment in early-childhood education in a high-risk, low-income community, and contrasted this finding with the minimal public return realized from tax incentives for business relocation and public subsidies for the construction of sports stadiums and convention centers.

A third obstacle is the widespread belief that government programs are invariably inefficient and ineffective. Yet even enthusiasts of market-like mechanisms, such as education vouchers, acknowledge that private resources are not adequate to the social need, and therefore endorse the use of tax revenue to support such initiatives. The proper debate about government involvement ought to be about the best strategies for social investment in children, not about the basic need for it. Extensive research indicates that high-quality programs that are well implemented in the early-childhood years can increase the odds for more favorable outcomes for vulnerable children. The question is whether voters are willing to entrust government with sufficient resources to ensure these strong returns on its investment.

The fourth obstacle to greater investment in the healthy development of young children is the way that divisions related to class, race, ethnicity, or geography lead to feelings of not wanting to pay for “other people's children.” Thus, the needs of highly vulnerable children are often dismissed or ignored because they are perceived to be the consequence of irresponsible parenting by adults who are viewed as undeserving of public support. This perspective raises two critical questions. First, how do we as a society promote responsible childbearing and effective parenting? And second, how do we help young children who live in environments that jeopardize their health and development? Science and common sense both tell us that ignoring parents who need support can threaten the well-being of their children. Babies whose life circumstances do not provide appropriate care and protection cannot be expected to pull themselves up by their “bootie straps.”

The time has come for public discourse in the United States to move beyond political arguments about individual versus government responsibility for young children. This ideological standoff must be superseded by a strong bipartisan commitment in both the public and the private sectors to address inequities that exist in the earliest years of life. Growing scientific evidence demonstrating the impact of early experiences on the developing architecture of the brain, and compelling economic data on the return on investment in children, should be helpful in the search for common ground.

This is not about government raising children. This is about government strengthening the capacity of families and communities to do the job well. This is not about seeking equality in outcomes. This is about striving for equality of opportunity. This is not about liberals versus conservatives. This is about wise investors who defy ideological labels, like the policy-makers from Oklahoma and Georgia who are leading the nation in providing universally available pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year olds.

A decade of public-opinion research suggests that the American people are weary of harsh political divisiveness. There is a desperate need for civil discourse that respects honest differences in values and focuses on finding common ground for pragmatic, bipartisan problem solving based on sound knowledge. The questions should be less about how much government has to pay and more about what we can reasonably expect in return. Investments in children must be assessed for their long-term value. And we must measure that value both in dollars and in the decent, healthy, productive adults who inherit our society and its institutions.

Jack P. Shonkoff is the dean of Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management and chairman of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. For further information, see