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Economic Mobility and Early Childhood Education

Photo of a 3-year-old girl playing with building blocks.By Shantel Meek, PhD, Policy Advisor for Early Childhood Development

Earlier this month, President Obama addressed the nation on the topic of economic mobility in America. The importance of early childhood education played a prominent role in the speech, and it is easy to understand why. The latest research indicates that disparities start earlier in life than most of us could have anticipated, making early childhood education a central ingredient in closing the opportunity gap.  Early childhood education is the earliest and most direct way to promote economic mobility. If we afford all children from low income families high quality early learning experiences, we can curb the effects of poverty and set them on a positive trajectory that will prepare them to excel in school and climb out of poverty.

Unfortunately, in recent years, upward mobility in our country has slowed at every level, now ranking lower than countries like Canada, Germany, and France. That is a long ways away from the America that prides itself on being the land of equal opportunity. What’s more, we know that economic immobility transcends generations. The trajectories that set economic mobility start at birth. As the President pointed out, research suggests that by the time a low-income child reaches her third birthday, she would have heard 30 million fewer words than her more affluent same-aged peers. These early disparities are magnified over time. If we don’t provide our youngest children with the enriching, stimulating, and supportive environments they need to excel in school and in life, we not only do a disservice to these children, but also to our country, to our competitive rank in the world, and to our future.

President Obama said it best “The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough.  But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care, or a community that views her future as their own, that should offend all of us and it should compel us to action.  We are a better country than this.”

We are a better country than this. That is why the President Obama proposed Preschool for All, a landmark vision that would afford all 4-year olds under 200 percent of poverty the opportunity to attend a high quality Pre-K program; vastly increase the number of infants and toddlers getting high quality early learning experiences through the Early Head Start-Child Care partnerships; and expand the voluntary home visiting program to support children’s first and most important teachers: families. As the President stated: “We know that kids in these programs grow up likelier to get more education, earn higher wages, form more stable families of their own.  It starts a virtuous cycle, not a vicious one.  And we should invest in that.  We should give all of our children that chance.”

If we want to live up to the America that our Founding Fathers envisioned and that countless Americans have worked hard for, we must make sure that the first step in the ladder of opportunity is strong and available to all of our youngest children. “What drives me as a grandson, a son, a father -- as an American -- is to make sure that every striving, hardworking, optimistic kid in America has the same incredible chance that this country gave me”, remarked the President. Together, we must make sure every child gets that chance. And we will be a better nation because of it. 

Check the transcript of President Obama’s full speech here.


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