By Chloe Learey, Executive Director
A traditional greeting for the Maasai is “And how are the children?” Their culture understands the importance of measuring the health of the community by considering how well one of its most precious resources is faring. When we are not able to protect and invest in our most vulnerable citizens who are bearers of the future, it is an indication that all is not well. Or, that we are not choosing to invest in the future.
As legislation is proposed and spending priorities debated in an environment of scarcity and competition for limited financial resources, the forces that divide us become more prevalent and we forget the ways in which we are all in this together. For instance, we can argue about how best to encourage economic development, whether it is by offering tax credits to employers for keeping or bringing their businesses to Vermont, investing in housing or making sure employees have access to childcare. Fundamentally it is an interconnected web and we need to understand and strengthen all the threads for the system to work best.
The importance of early childhood is gaining recognition at both the state and federal level. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have policies that demonstrate awareness about investing in early childhood services, from early education to home visiting. They recognize that an improved economy will benefit all participants and that economic policy, particularly government economic policy, should, therefore, focus on broad economic efforts. When we invest in families with young children we are improving the current state of the community and economy and helping ensure the future is strong as well. It is a multi-generation approach to economic development.
Invariably people make arguments about why they should not have to invest in children: “But I don’t have any children, why should I pay for someone else’s?” or “I figured out how to afford my children, why can’t these families do it?” The fact is that these are our children and our future. Who is going to be the doctor that cares for you when you get cancer as you age?
Who is going to run your business when you retire? Who is going to think creatively about how to keep our community a thriving place? Our children. We know the early years are most important in establishing brain function, the foundation for all development. A child’s brain is 80 percent developed by age 3, and 90 percent by age 5, before they even get to kindergarten, and yet we invest much more in K through 12 education than we do in early education. If children do not get the support they need to build a strong foundation on which to grow and learn we will all experience the impact.
Acknowledging the need for quality early education is only one side of the economic equation, though. The average wage for an early childhood teacher in Vermont is $13.27 an hour. How can we get our best and brightest to help us invest in our children’s development if they do not have a sustainable income? As a community how can we afford not to find ways in which to pay more? And the solution cannot rest on the shoulders of families, some of whom pay 30 percent or more of their income towards child care.
Children do well when their families do well. Children who do well grow up to be thriving adults who contribute to the health of the community. Adults who are thriving can be parents who support their children’s optimal development, and so the cycle perpetuates itself. When the children are doing well, we all are doing well.
So, the next time you talk to a politician or meet a political candidate please ask, “And how are the children?”
Chloe Learey is the executive director of the 50-year old Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro. She serves on the Building Bright Futures State Advisory Council, a governor-appointed body that advises the administration and legislature on early childhood care, health, and education systems.