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Counties can help build the case for investing in early childhood programs

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Counties can make the economic case for investing in high-quality early childhood programs and services

Last year, the cost of center-based infant care exceeded one-year’s tuition and fees at a four-year public college in 28 states and the District of Columbia with the average cost of care exceeding 27 percent of the median household income for single working parents.  

Child care is simply out of reach for many families.  American workforce participation in child care fell to 62.7 percent in May 2017, its lowest rate since the late 1970s, according to a report released in June 2017 by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, outlining the business case for high-quality child care.

More than 70 percent of non-working poor adults with children under the age of 5 revealed they were not working because they were home caring for their children, according to a survey conducted in 2016 by the American Enterprise Institute.

Investments in high-quality child care not only provide incentive for parents to remain in the workforce and help alleviate the effects of poverty, but also help to contribute to the development of a future workforce. Research conducted by Dr. James Heckman, Nobel laureate and professor at the University of Chicago, demonstrates a 13 percent return on investment for high-quality early childhood education. And yet, only 3 percent of education spending in 2016 was directed toward early childhood.  

While over the past few years there has been an increased focus on the importance of school readiness and the value of pre-kindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year old children, funding for comprehensive services before age 3 have traditionally been patched together from a variety of sources.  

Programs and services that support access to affordable high-quality child care, universal home visiting and timely developmental screenings are imperative in creating a continuum of supports that help to build a strong foundation for children. 

This crucial time in a child’s development helps to set the stage for all future learning, behavior and health.

County leaders can pay a key role in facilitating ROI conversations with the community to not only gain their buy-in, but also build a strong economic and business case for investing in high-quality early childhood programs and services.

Here are a few ways that counties can help build this case with influencers like policymakers, local businesses, voters and parents:

Tailoring messages to your audience.  Different audiences are stakeholders with their own lens on the issue.  Make sure your message resonates with their primary interest.

Leading with a universal message. These messages should aim to gain buy-in from the majority up front and emphasize the big picture — instilling how early childhood programs and services contribute to a prosperous nation, add value to a thriving community and prepare the next generation of workers.

Talking about child development. Not everyone is an early childhood expert, so share the brain science and explain how a child’s relationships and surrounding environment affect their development. Make connections to how specific policies and programs help to strengthen families and make a positive impact on a child’s development.

Talking about return on investment. Investments raise productivity and support the future economy.  Use both national and local data to make your case.  For example, Los Angeles County cited a report by the Advance Project to bring attention to the limited availability of child care slots for infants and toddlers in their community. Local storytelling can also be a powerful tool because it evokes emotion and empathy.  The Cradle to Career Alliance in Boone County, Mo., recently held a symposium and released their 2018 Kindergarten Readiness Community Status report that included quotes from parent interviews.

Ending with a call to action.  A call to action does not always have to involve funding.  Your request may be for technological innovation, community volunteerism, advocating for a policy change or supporting early childhood programs through social corporate responsibility programs.  Providing your audience with concrete ways they can contribute to your initiative will help to increase engagement. The team at Ready for School, Ready for Life in Guilford County, N.C., outlined specific ways businesses and residents could support young children such as donating books so newborns could receive a book when leaving the hospital and implementing family-friendly policies and practices based on employee and customer needs.

County leaders and community-based advocates are key allies for children and building political will and engagement around early childhood investments. Last year, NACo partnered with the National Collaborative for Infants and Toddlers, funded by the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, to bring together national partners, early childhood leaders, policymakers and practitioners inside and outside of state and local government to create and strengthen promising policies and programs to ensure healthy development at age three.  

Because counties exercise key functions and often play a critical role in the lives of their youngest residents, NACo will soon be releasing a resolution template and launching peer learning networks for rural, mid-size/suburban and large/urban counties. Together, these resources will provide additional support counties in their prioritization of local early childhood investments and exploration of opportunities for making a measurable impact for children from prenatal to age three.  

If you would like to learn more about these resources and how you can be a champion for infants and toddlers, please contact Tracy Steffek at

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