Early Childhood Development, Our Health, and Our Economy
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Con Hogan, of Plainfield, who is on the board of the Permanent Fund for Vermont's Children and is a former member of the Green Mountain Care Board. He was secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services from 1991 to 1999.
Vermont is facing some very daunting challenges in the economic development world.
We are beginning to understand the implications of our state’s population not growing. Projections are telling us that the southwest part of Vermont will actually lose population over the next 20 years. Chittenden County will only be growing at about 2% over the foreseeable future.
Further, we continue to lose young people and, at the same time, the slight population growth we are seeing is a result of retired elders moving to Vermont, who by and large are not part of the workforce.
We are told regularly that there are good high paying jobs in Vermont, but the skilled workforce needed for these jobs isn’t here.
In recent years Vermont has tried a variety of strategies to mediate these problems generally to little or no avail. These good efforts are barely keeping us close to even.
We can’t advertise our way out of this problem, nor can we offer the tax incentives that a place like New York State can. We’re a tiny place with increasingly difficult money problems.
We need a new large, effective, cross-sector strategy.
I am a founding board member of the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children. This organization was established in 2000 to address the woeful child care situation in Vermont, and over the years, has built a business-oriented Board to lead this work. We focus most of our resources on improving child care because we consider high-quality, affordable child care an economic opportunity.
In fact, making high-quality, affordable child care accessible to families and increasing pay for providers to sustain the industry could, over time, be the largest economic improvement effort on the board.
Many people pay as much for child care as they do their mortgage, even while providers earn, on average, less than $27,000 a year. Many other working parents simply can’t find quality child care. This is keeping thousands of highly-qualified people out of the job market. Economically, we can’t afford to do this.
The Permanent Fund, along with the Vermont Business Roundtable, has done some cost/benefit work regarding the impact of improving child care. The numbers are stunning: Every dollar Vermont invests to expand our early care and learning system to meet the real need of Vermonters would reap net benefits to our government and society of $3.08, which would accrue to $1.3 billion over the working lifetime (65 years) of the children served.
In addition, solid child care gives children a big head start before they get to kindergarten. Over time, these children will be better students and better, more productive workers in our Vermont society.
Better paid child care workers will attract people to the child care business and child care will begin to thrive. It would be an important job creator.
Another important impact is on the health of children over time. Good health helps people lead long and productive lives. This is another example of the need to cross our traditional sectors.
Many of the chronic diseases people develop as adults—such as heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases—are linked to traumas experienced in early childhood. They are called “Adverse Childhood Experiences” or ACEs. They include things like physical, sexual and verbal abuse and exposure to drug and alcohol abuse. In Vermont, 1 in 8 children have experienced 3 or more ACEs, significantly increasing their risk for health and social problems later in life. Vermont’s Legislature established an Adverse Childhood Experiences Working Group this year to explore the issue’s impact on our children and families and deliver a report with potential approaches to address the phenomenon.
ACEs are incredibly detrimental to the lives of the children and families affected, but are also a huge cost to our public system as a whole. This cost is based on the associated expenses of medical treatment, interactions with the criminal justice system, productivity losses and more.
The most powerful protection against the negative impacts of exposure to ACEs is at least one stable, nurturing relationship with an adult. Child care providers fulfill this role for the 7 out of 10 Vermont children under six who have all available parents in the workforce. Providers identify children in need of support, help them build resilience through caring relationships, and connect their families to appropriate resources. Providers also form strong relationships with parents, and offer guidance and support. Empowering Vermont’s child care providers to offer the highest quality care possible and making sure families can access that care is one of the best opportunities we have to set our children on a path to lifelong health and success.
Helping solve Vermont’s demographic challenge, strengthening our economy, and keeping Vermonters healthy, all hinge upon ensuring children and families have access to high-quality early care and learning. Yet, for the most part, we are still functioning in silo modes in government and also in our non-profit sector. We don’t see the fundamental connections among early childhood development, health care and economic development.
Until we begin to think in larger, more integrated ways about our future, we will continue on this incremental path, and in this increasingly complex world, we will continue to work very hard with little effect.
Yes, improving child care improves our health and economy.