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Do We Have the Will to Give Every Child Pre-Kindergarten?

Our nation has never prioritized ending poverty, or all children's access to quality early education. When will we start?

Children today are less likely to have a parent who is securely employed than they were ten years ago—down from 79 percent in 2001 to 71 percent in 2011. Family median income has dropped by $6,300 (in real dollars) over this same period and children are 37 percent more likely to be in poverty—$22,050 for a family of four—than they were in 2001. They are even more likely to be poor today than in 1975.

In short, both low- and middle-income children started to slip down the economic ladder in 2001, fell even farther as a result of the Great Recession, and are now experiencing higher levels of economic insecurity than in the prior decade.

These disturbing trends are colliding with stalled progress in pre-kindergarten enrollment, the rate of which is barely higher than it was ten years ago. The percentage of children ages 3-4 enrolled in PreK was 52 percent in 2001 and 54 percent in 2011. The number of children reading and performing math at grade level is creeping up at an unacceptably slow rate. Only 34 percent of our nation's fourth graders are reading proficiently, compared to 29 percent in 2001. At this rate of growth, it will take more than three decades—35 years—to reach the point where even 50 percent of our children are reading proficiently.

Now, as the fiscal cliff crisis looms, the very programs that give our most vulnerable children a leg up on a brighter future are in jeopardy—programs that significantly reduce poverty and that start children on the path of educational success. Now is not the time to cut the basic protections we have in place for our children. Education funding, including state funds, and tax benefits that lift children out of poverty must not be on the chopping block.

Each year at the Foundation for Child Development, we report on the Child Well-Being Index—the nation's most comprehensive measure of trends in the quality-of-life for children and youth. Based on analyses conducted at Duke University, the CWI captures national data from 28 indicators across seven domains that address children's health, education, family, economic well-being, and social relationships going back to 1975.

This year, we focused on the first decade of the new century and found that 2001-2011 was a period of pervasive economic decline for the American family. Virtually all of the improvements in economic well-being we’ve made for families over the past 36 years have been lost. Over the last decade, the percentage of children living in families below the poverty line increased from 15.6 percent in 2001 to 21.4 percent in 2011. And one third of this increase in child poverty occurred between 2001 and 2007—before the Great Recession. In fact, the Family Economic Well-Being domain reached a historic, 26 year high in 2000, but then began to trend downward six years before the national economic downturn.

And as children are losing economic ground, the toehold of a strong pre-kindergarten education has become unreliable and the promise of a solid educational foundation remains hollow for vast numbers of our nation's children.

The problem here is not one of a knowledge gap. We know that economic insecurity and poverty are especially devastating to young children, for whom the current poverty rate is over 25 percent. We know that high-quality early education offers children their best chance at promising educational and economic futures.

The problem is also not one of lacking effective policy answers. Decades ago the nation made a commitment to substantially reduce poverty among the elderly…and did so. Between 1959 and 2011, poverty among individuals 65 years and over plummeted from 35 percent to 9 percent largely as a result of the Social Security Act. In the mid-1960's, the nation developed a model of comprehensive pre-kindergarten education—Head Start (and Early Head Start). But unfortunately, today Head Start serves only half of all eligible children and states are struggling to sustain preschool education programs that have proven records of increased school readiness.

No, the problem is one of national will.

Our nation has never made a commitment to establish a stable economic floor, above the poverty line, below which we will not allow any child to fall. Our nation has never prioritized all children's access to quality early education.

As our nation's leaders engage in urgent budget discussions, it is time to make these commitments. This means protecting and strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, including their refundability provisions, which lifted 5 million children out of poverty in 2010. It also means that state and federal governments must make substantial and dependable investments in high-quality early education programs that have proven to foster early learning and social-emotional development.

Few would disagree that economic security and dependable opportunities to learn are basic rights of young children. The new century has been witness to serious erosion of these rights. It is time to take immediate steps to ensure that we will see signs of restored security and opportunity when we report on the Child Well-Being Index at this same time next year.

Boy with sad eyes image via Shutterstock

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