Ben J headshot4001

Ben Jealous

Some of our children may be falling behind by the time they reach the starting line.

There is mounting evidence that many of the gaps facing communities of color – gaps in income, literacy and educational achievement – are already present by the time a child enters kindergarten. A report from the Center for American Progress found that the so-called “school-readiness gap” is stunting the potential of entire generations of children of color, and restricting America’s future economic success. This gap is first present in young children under 3, collectively referred to as infants and toddlers.

The first few years of a child’s life are crucial to their future success – a full 85 percent of brain development occurs before age five. That’s why their mother and I have read to our children, Jack and Morgan, every day of their lives. However, much of early childhood development is influenced by factors beyond parents’ dedication.

One factor is economic. By age two, there are significant differences in the cognitive abilities of low and high-income children. By age three, these gaps become visible in the processing skills needed to develop language capacity. By the time children are four years old, low-income kids have heard 30 million fewer words than children from more affluent families. This gap can be even more significant for children who are non-native English speakers. The result is that by two, there is already a pronounced gap between the wealthiest children and the poorest children. Children from low-income families are a year or more behind their more advantaged peers.

Another factor is based on race. Fewer than half of Black children attend preschool, and only 37 percent of Hispanic children ages 3 to 4 attend preschool. This is inexcusable. Depriving early childhood education to a large portion of the population is equivalent to organizing a marathon and only allowing some of the runners to train before they get to the starting line. It can only produce uneven results and discouraged participants who can’t understand why they have so much trouble getting ahead.

It is also a recipe for further economic inequality and long-term economic stagnation. The majority of children born in the United States today are children of color. Taken together, Blacks and Hispanics will comprise 42 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2050. If we are serious about creating a country where all our communities can contribute, we need to prepare our children for the future by providing them with a strong educational foundation.

Increasing access to high-quality early learning opportunities, particularly for infants and toddlers, would have positive, long-lasting, and compounding effects. Children who attend early learning programs gain four months of learning on average, and up to a year for high-quality programs. Furthermore, the children who would benefit the most from increased investment are those are already farthest behind – specifically, low-income children of color.

In the past 10 years, 40 states have initiated state-funded preschool programs, but these programs still only serve one quarter of all 4-year-olds. We can do better. Though many civil rights organizations are focused on poverty, lack of social mobility, and K-12 achievement gaps, comparatively little attention is paid to how investments in a robust infant and toddler, and broader early childhood support system might improve these conditions. That needs to change.

Today’s infants and toddlers – like my two-year-old son Jack – will soon be the foundation of America’s economic success – or lack thereof. Let’s get serious about creating the conditions for all of our communities to help make America great.

Ben Jealous is a senior fellow at American Progress. He is the former president and CEO of the NAACP and currently works as a partner at Kapor Capital, an Oakland-based firm that leverages the technology sector to create progressive social change.