Apr 4, 2017

Con Hogan: Early childhood investment is prudent

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Con Hogan, who is on the board of the Permanent Fund for Children and a member of the Green Mountain Care Board. He was secretary the Vermont Agency of Human Services from 1991 to 1999.

It is beginning to look like a substantial investment, proposed by Gov. Phil Scott, in early childhood education and child care will be hitting the cutting room floor in the Vermont Legislature.

This is in spite of the amazing gains that children make with early childhood opportunities and how that benefits all of us, as evidenced by a wealth of national and now Vermont-specific data. From the economic development point of view, the new study Vermont’s Early Care & Learning Dividend tells us that every dollar invested in expanding our early care and learning system would bring a minimal return of over $3 — generalized to the entire population of Vermont children in need of child care. Over the working lifetime of the children served (60 years), the report calculates net benefits of $1.3 billion for Vermont’s citizens and government. This returns on average over $21 million a year.

Every business person is familiar with using a cost-benefit approach in decision-making: where can resources be invested most wisely to yield the greatest return? While the goal of government is not to turn a profit from its citizens, we can take valuable lessons from entrepreneurialism to balance our state budget and better serve our most vulnerable.

I have had the opportunity to examine the most troubled parts of our society — where the vulnerable most frequently fall through the cracks — from the front lines in corrections, mental health and health care, child protection, and human services. And what I have learned over the last 40 years is that when it comes to combatting the expensive and tragic symptoms of social problems such as opiate use, crime, and poor health, prevention yields the best cost-benefit ratio. In other words, we can invest now, or we can pay much more later. And the most cost-effective opportunity to invest is during early childhood, when the brain is being rapidly shaped into a mental foundation that will help or hinder a child’s success for the rest of his or her life, depending on the experiences that child is exposed to.

One prime example is the impact of early experiences on lifelong health. Much work has been done around the correlation between adverse childhood experiences — such as abuse, neglect or a range of household dysfunctions such as witnessing domestic violence, growing up with substance abuse or mental illness, or crime in the home — and well-being in adulthood. The seminal 1998 article on this research, “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults,” explains that one’s adverse childhood experiences “score” (how many of those experiences occurred in childhood) is not only directly correlated to one’s mental, emotional and physical health in adulthood, but also most of the bad things that happen to people when they grow up. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that exposure to stress in early childhood impacts the foundation of one’s decision-making skills as an adult.

For these reasons, giving children a healthy start in life is one our best opportunities to find savings and efficiencies within our health care system — and corrections system, and public education system, and social services in general.

Fortunately, there is some evidence that awareness of this fact is gaining the high ground.

  • In January, Gov. Scott recommended an important boost to child care in his budget of $9.5 million for early childhood, including child care.
  • Early childhood and affordable child care became a prominent issue in the 2016 election cycle for the first time in this state’s history.
  • There is great support, from not only early childhood advocates, but also business organizations such as the Vermont Business Roundtable, who truly recognize early childhood development as an essential economic development issue.

Change is in the air.

We truly hope the Legislature is listening, and that early childhood development and child care get a fair shake in the 2019 budget development.

Click here to read this commentary on VT Digger.org. 

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