Want big returns? Invest in small children

Our companies and our corporate colleagues are increasingly addressing a demographic crucial to American businesses: 4-year-olds.

More and more, policy makers at all levels are joining us, as evidenced by the recent introduction of the bi-partisan Strong Start for America’s Children Act by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.). As proposed, the act would establish a federal–state partnership to increase young children’s access to high quality early learning programs and other valuable services to support their development.

The timing could be better only if had happened sooner. Across industries, American businesses share some basic needs.  First, we need a workforce made up of people with the education and the technical skills to produce our products and serve our customers.  And second, we prosper when consumers’ purchasing power increases, rather than diminishes. Without an adequate supply of each, our long-term futures become clouded.

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Unfortunately, our economy is struggling to generate a workforce fit for the challenges of the future or a consumer base capable of fueling American prosperity. And we all pay the price.

If we aim to secure a better future for our children and grandchildren, we must do more now to prepare them to compete in the world that they’ll inherit from us.  And the investments we need to make come earlier than most people think.

Much attention is focused on raising high school graduation rates, because failing to receive a diploma sets young people on a path that makes later success unlikely. Today one in five of our students still fails to reach this milepost, a clear indicator that we are not equipping enough of our children for success through their formative years or as adults.

The surest, most cost-effective way to prepare young people to achieve economic and social mobility is to focus on the earliest years. Why? Research shows that:

  • By age 3, children in lower-income families typically know half as many words as children in more advantaged families.
  • Children lacking a solid foundation can arrive at kindergarten 18 months behind their peers.
  • Children unready for kindergarten are half as likely to read proficiently by third grade.
  • Children who don’t read proficiently in third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
  • Students who drop out can expect to earn less than one-third the income of college graduates, have a four-in-ten chance of depending on public assistance, and are eight times likelier than high school graduates to wind up in prison.

These individual statistics, of course, can’t predict the future of every child, but they do paint a sobering picture of what’s at stake for business and our economy. And parents, who understand that so much of a child’s development occurs prior to kindergarten, can’t do it alone, especially in low-income families without access to quality early childhood programs.

Everyone — individuals, nonprofits, government at all levels, and businesses — has a role to play in supporting programs that build well-prepared graduates and successful adults. We all share an economic interest. And we share a civic obligation.

Recognizing our common interest, more businesses are stepping up their investments in early childhood. And we support smart investments by government in proven programs (there are many) that help young children grow into successful students and adults.  We encourage Congress to act.

These are complex issues, and everyone may not agree on exactly how to give children the right start in life. We are encouraged that policy makers at all levels recognize that preparing our youngest children for success is vital to economic prosperity.  We look forward to sharing what we have learned regarding what works.       

This is not a partisan issue. It is an American issue. For us, it is also a bottom-line business issue.

When young children succeed, they become students who succeed, they have families that succeed, they help companies to succeed, which enables the economy to grow and the country to succeed. It’s all connected, and it all begins long before a 4 year-old turns 5.

Brennan is chairman emeritus of The Vanguard Group and member of the Governor's Early Learning Investment Commission in Pennsylvania. Rohr is executive chairman and former CEO of The PNC Financial Services Group, which founded a $350-million, multi-year initiative in early childhood education in 2004.