By 2030, there will be one billion more people walking the earth. That’s one billion extra children who will have a profound impact on society.
The early years of these children’s lives will determine their future physical and mental health, academic achievement, ability to interact socially and even salary. Already, more than 200 million children fail to reach their potential due to a lack of care and support.
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For governments, improving people’s lives in the early years can have a radical impact on most of the challenges they are already grappling with. Problems such as inequality and obesity are rooted in the first five years, as are many of the most effective solutions.
Here are just a few examples.
Inequalities of income and opportunities have been growing around the world, leading the OECD to question whether the “social elevator”, that once let people from humble origins grow their wealth and life chances, is “broken”. This stagnation may even be harming economic growth.
In an interview with Apolitical, OECD chief of staff Gabriela Ramos revealed the one policy which she believed would help above all others: early childhood education and care.
At two years old, children of lower-income families may be six months behind in language development
Achievement gaps between children of different backgrounds develop rapidly before school. For example, even at two years old, children of lower-income families may be six months behind in language development. These gaps then widen as children move through school and into the workforce.
But it is possible to close these gaps. In New York, for example, where children of different racial backgrounds progress differently at school, a program called ‘ParentCorps’ provides extra preschool support to children and parents in high-poverty, ethnic minority areas. It includes training courses for parents and teachers, covering topics like building a routine at home, and a “social-emotional curriculum” to help kids prepare for a classroom environment.
The results indicate that the program could close the racial achievement gap in educational attainment.
With millions of jobs expected to disappear thanks to technological change and other shifts, transferable skills like critical thinking and teamwork will become even more important, said Ramos. It’s in the first five years that these cognitive and social skills are developed.
A healthy population
As people live for longer, populations grow and medicine gets more expensive, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for health services to cover the ground. As a result, an increasing priority for governments is intervening before problems arise by maintaining a healthy population.
If policymakers are to address the root of obesity, for example, they need to intervene in early childhood. A child’s early years, even their time in the womb, have a huge bearing on their future weight. For example, a pregnant mother smoking increases the chances of their child becoming obese.
In 2016, 41 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese
In Amsterdam, the city government has embarked on a new campaign against obesity in preschool children. For school-age kids, they cut obesity by 12% in just three years, and hope to achieve similar results for preschool children by incorporating public health support into their home visiting system. New parents receive guidance on everything from breastfeeding to exercise, and can even be referred, along with their children, to specialists like dieticians and physiotherapists.
In 2016, 41 million children under the age of five were overweight or obese, an issue which is increasingly spreading to the developing world.
Never before have countries around the world held so much debt. To varying degrees, public servants are always under pressure to ensure they save as much money as possible.
Stunting is estimated to lose Pakistan 8.2% of its future GDP
The good news for policymakers, then, is the mounting evidence that early childhood interventions save huge amounts in the long term. For example, the Perry Preschool project — an education program for American three- and four-year-olds in poverty — saw the state save approximately $12.90 for every dollar spent.
And in developing countries, early childhood interventions are not just significant for the public purse today, but have a huge bearing on economic growth tomorrow.
Stunting, for example — undergrowth of young children leading to poor development — is estimated to lose Pakistan 8.2% of its future GDP. If nations around Africa and south Asia are to benefit from their “demographic dividend” — an economic boost due to increases in the working age population — then stunting has to be dealt with.
There are a number of examples of successful government policies which have reduced stunting. In Peru, for example, more than 350,000 children were saved in less than a decade, thanks to structural reform in social sector spending, and the powerful use of data to target resources. — Jack Graham
(Picture credit: Flickr/Pasco County Schools)