By Neal Palmer
Not long ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof posed the question of whether the country and its leaders are insufficiently attentive to the needs of those ‘too small to fail’—in this case, our nation’s children—an important counterpoint to the discussion of institutions considered ‘too big to fail’. Although debates on inequality are frequently defined by discussion of tax rates, access to education, and minimum fair and living wages, we overlook one of the most obvious and potent levers at our disposal: investment in childhood development and early intervention.
As noted by both Kristof and the Clinton Foundation, which leads an initiative known by the same phrase, research on the importance of early stages of human development is convincing: children who demonstrate early cognitive delays—whether the result of poverty, parenting practices, individual predisposition, or other factors—find it awfully difficult to ever catch up.
A wealth of new research highlights the importance of this phase of development and strategies to support it. Many such strategies focus on the family as a critical support for child development, including emphases on in-home family support, family and parenting skills, parent and child education, family therapy, and family preservation programs. For instance:
- Researchers have found broad benefits of nurse-family partnerships, which provide home-based instruction on prenatal and child-rearing practices to low-income, first-time mothers during pregnancy and children’s infancy.
- The Kids in Transition to School Program (KITS) developed at the Oregon Social Learning Center has been shown to improve the school readiness skills of at-risk children through a combination of therapeutic playgroups emphasizing socio-emotional skills and early literacy, and parent workshops on early literacy and parenting practices.
To be frank, the importance of early childhood and family development has been clear for decades. The frequently-discussed (and much debated) word gap between children of wealthy and lower income parents was first documented more than 20 years ago. Today’s emphasis on expanding access to Head Start has its origins in the Perry Preschool Program of the 1960s.
Fortunately, officials in NYC are attuned to the importance of early childhood. The Criminal Justice Investment Initiative (CJII) of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, headed by Cyrus Vance, Jr., acknowledges the importance of early childhood not just on cognitive functioning and academic and professional success, but also on reducing crime and involvement in the justice system. Through partnership with the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, the DA’s Office recently issued a strategic plan to invest the $250 million available through CJII. The plan focuses on crime prevention, victims of crime, and reentry and diversion. Included under prevention efforts is a $13 million total commitment to fund up to 10 programs or interventions addressing family and youth development, including early childhood approaches as well as targeted, focused interventions with high-risk young people and their families.
This initiative is complemented by others around the city, including the Mayor’s commitment to universal pre-K, creation of a NYC Children’s Cabinet, expansion of after-school and summer enrichment programs, and efforts to increase parental engagement in children’s education.
Too often we often forget the building blocks that contribute to the nation’s dynamism and to institutions perceived as critical to the country’s independence and security. Investments in people, specifically infants and children, strengthen our collective ability to respond to challenges facing the nation. When we invest in children, we improve not only their educational, professional, health and other outcomes, but we also make our communities stronger and safer for everyone. Investments in children are long-term investments that benefit us all.