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Jan 30, 2024

Early Childhood Education: Invisible Infrastructure

Sponsored Content provided by Jane Morrow - Executive Director, Smart Start of New Hanover County

Should we think of early childhood education as infrastructure? Infrastructure is the set of systems and facilities that are necessary for the economy, firms, and households to function. Often the first things that come to mind when we think of infrastructure are roads and airports, water and sewer, communications systems and public schools.  One important, but largely unnoticed, part of our infrastructure is early care and education.  We have tended, for the most part, to think of early education, unlike K-12 schools for older children, as being a private matter.    That is beginning to change.
We have an increasingly greater understanding of how critical early education is to the economy.  ReadyNation, an organization that looks at our country’s miliary readiness, finds that lack of access to high-quality and affordable child care has more than doubled its negative impact to the U.S. economy over the last five years, now costing $122 billion in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue every year.  
One third of the U.S. workforce has a child under 14 in their household. Only 30% of all working parents have any form of back-up childcare.  So, when a childcare program closes, most parents have to miss work or may have to leave the workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as many as 100,000 Americans have been forced to stay home from work each month because of child care problems.  Twenty six percent of women who became unemployed during the pandemic said it was due to a lack of childcare.
Early education affects not just today’s economy but the workforce of tomorrow.  If employers seek staff who can get along with others, solve problems, think critically,  and are creative and innovative, they need people with strong executive functioning.  The period in time when there is the largest growth in executive functioning skills is between the ages of two and five.  For those skills to be developed well, children need responsive and consistent adults teaching them, they need enriching environments, and they need high quality care.  Workforce development begins with early education according to Nobel laureate James Heckman. His research as has shown that children who received high quality early education are more likely to graduate, have productive careers, and pay taxes. 
Early education is indeed a set of systems that are necessary for a well-functioning economy.  As important as this infrastructure is, it is woefully underfunded. North Carolina invests around 12 billion in the K-12 system and five billion in higher education but less than one billion in early childhood education.  In New Hanover County we are very fortunate to have 1.2 million dollars in local funds going to pre-school-aged children; many counties do not make these investments.  That is, however, just over 1 percent of the County’s education budget, excluding debt services.  Our pre-school-aged children make up 27% of the child population. 
Investment in early childhood pays off.  Researchers have found a 13% ROI for comprehensive, high-quality, birth-to-five education. In fact, there can be dual returns for investing in quality early education by not only providing foundational skills for children but by allowing parents, particularly mothers, to enter the workforce and increase family earnings. Further, there is an overall economic fallout when there is a lack of childcare through reduced workforce participation, loss of business productivity and state revenues. 
Smart Start of New Hanover County is our local hub for early childhood – the first 2,000 days of a child’s life.  We work with early educators to enhance quality, we assist with the cost of childcare by supporting the local childcare subsidy program, and we work with families to strengthen their ability to support their children’s development. Connect with us to learn more about why early childhood matters, why it is important for your business both today and in the future, and to learn how you can advocate for investment in the early years

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