Doing Better at Doing Good

Early childhood programs have real economic benefits

October 13, 2012 

Are we under-investing in our state’s youngest children? A convincing stream of research suggests we might be.

High-quality child care attracts highly skilled workers who are more likely to move to and stay in a community – in turn luring employers. Having children in quality programs also increases worker productivity and decreases costly absenteeism. And research shows that children with access to high-quality early childhood programs (birth to age 5), earn higher test scores throughout their K-12 career, are less likely to drop out or repeat a grade, have fewer enrollments in special education programs, and are more likely to graduate from college and keep a job.

All of this translates into economic benefit. According to Tim Bartik’s book “Investing in Kids,” for every dollar invested in full-time early learning and care, a state can expect to see a $2.25 return in savings. Nobel economist James Heckman puts this return on investment closer to $9 when the program’s graduates complete their education and start contributing to the economy.

Last year, the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill released a study started in 1972 to track students from lower-income communities who participated in a high-quality early childhood education program. The results are remarkable.

Now reaching their late 30s and early 40s, the Abecedarian Project participants (named for learning their ABCs) were four times more likely to earn college degrees than the control group (who didn’t receive high-quality care). They also are more likely to be consistently employed and less dependent on public assistance – all saving the state money.

Recognizing these advantages, North Carolina has become a pioneer in early childhood education.

In 1993, the N.C. legislature and Gov. Jim Hunt launched Smart Start to invest in quality child care providers across the state to “ensure that young children enter school healthy and ready to succeed.” With an initial pilot program investing $20 million in 12 programs across 18 counties, the initiative grew into a $263 million investment in 76 locally governed partnership organizations serving all 100 counties. In 2001, North Carolina added the “More at Four” Pre-Kindergarten Program (now called NC Pre-Kindergarten) to try to increase the number of 4-year olds in quality pre-K programs across the state.

Clear benefits

To oversee the funds, provide technical assistance, share best practices across providers and ensure a comprehensive approach to child care and family support, the North Carolina Partnership for Children (NCPC) was established.

Since its launch, NCPC has had 37 independent evaluations conducted on its effectiveness. The NCPC also has been tracking 24 indicators of healthy conditions for children in every county (the only state in the country to do so) with a particular emphasis on the most vulnerable children in our state.

The bottom line: All indicators show a clear benefit from our investment in early childhood education – ranging from education and health gains for children to employability among their parents. These initiatives also have enhanced North Carolina’s reputation in the field with every other state in the country seeking best practice guidance from North Carolina early childhood education leaders. In fact, the Kellogg Foundation provided funding to help replicate North Carolina’s model in 11 states.

Not only is this good for North Carolina’s reputation – strengthening our ability to recruit companies, retain talent and drive job creation – it’s also great for our families.

Funding declines

There’s only one problem: We’re starting to sabotage our own success.

Since 2000, funding has been cut for Smart Start by $49 million across the state. Some communities, such as Durham, have experienced as much as a 50 percent budget reduction.

Over the same time, the number of children in North Carolina under 5 has grown by more than 20 percent and the number of families living in poverty is up 26 percent. The result? Waiting lists for families that most need quality care.

It’s inevitable that in tough economic times hard decisions need to be made. But our recent trend of under-investing in one of our greatest assets is misguided.

How can we ensure all families have the care they need? While this will mean more public and private support, this is an investment in our future with proven returns.

Now is not the time to reverse course. Let’s continue to be a national leader and invest in our children when it counts most.

To learn more about this issue, please visit

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of "Life Entrepreneurs." Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book "The Messy Quest for Meaning" and blogs at They can be reached at and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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