For far too many American children, the race is over before it really begins. Arbitrary factors like zip code, race and gender are determining whether those children prosper or are consigned to poverty. About half of children born into poverty in the US will spend at least half their childhoods poor. And they are much more likely to experience poverty in early adulthood as well. That’s not how we understand the American Dream, and it’s an eminently solvable problem.
There is ample evidence that high-quality education at an early age helps break the cycle of poverty and meaningfully expands social and economic mobility. That’s one of the reasons why House Democrats included billions in federal funding for universal preschool in the Build Back Better Act.
Unfortunately, the historic legislative package is stalled since Senator Joe Manchin said he wouldn’t vote for it. But if we’re ever to address the embarrassing lack of investment in our nation’s children, Congress must convince Manchin to support the bill.
The fact is that the child care and development elements of the Build Back Better Act actually represent the economic foresight and fiscal responsibility that will help expand our economy, lift children out of poverty, and address economic disparity nationwide. Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman has conclusively shown that early comprehensive child care improves health and social outcomes, on top of strengthening the economy. Early childhood education helps children secure their own economic futures and delivers significant economic benefits to their families as well.
Programs like universal preschool make it possible for more parents to join the workforce and contribute to local economies. Research from the National Women’s Law Center demonstrates that this could be a gamechanger for lower-income women with less than a college degree, especially for Black and Latina women, who often start from a more precarious economic position.
Beyond the moral imperatives for supporting America’s children, there’s also a significant return on investment. While vulnerable families are the main beneficiaries in the short term, every dollar invested in early childhood programs can yield anywhere from $4 to $9 in return to the US economy, according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. These returns benefit local communities because of reduced crime and increased tax revenues that come with more children participating in early childhood programs and getting jobs when they become adults.
Many congressional Republicans have been relentless in their efforts to paint Build Back Better as a “pathway to socialism.” Still, there are some Republican-led states in the South that are joining states like California and New York to expand early childhood education. Alabama increased its preschool funding by $6 million and Florida followed suit with an additional $10 million in its fiscal year 2020-2021 budget.
Those who seek only to visit a defeat on President Joe Biden or who fail to see the ethical and economic value in the Build Back Better Act are standing in the way of a valuable opportunity to uplift our country’s most vulnerable populations, strengthen our economy and invest in America’s future workforce. Congress can’t give up on getting the bill passed, as there is still hope. Shortly after vowing to vote against it, Manchin and President Biden had a cordial phone call where the two discussed reengaging this year.
The American economic exceptionalism we enjoy today is the reward of generations of wise investment in people through things like public education and Pell grants that help low-income students get a college education. At this moment of truly global competition, it is our turn to show such foresight.
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