County governments are working to break cycles of multigenerational poverty across the country. In 2015, over 14.6 million children were living in poverty in the United States. But the footprint of child poverty is wider. More than 21.1 million children were growing up in high-poverty areas, which are neighborhoods with more than 20 percent of residents living below the poverty level..1 Among other factors, adverse childhood experiences, often prevalent in low-income areas, frequently inhibit the ability of an individual to escape from the cycle of poverty that entrapped the generations before them. In fact, the more time any individual spends living in a high-poverty area, the lower their chances are of succeeding economically in life; this effect is especially heightened during childhood.2

Stat: Children in Poverty

14.6 million children were living in poverty in 2015.

21.1 million children were living in high-poverty areas in 2015.

Early childhood development (ECD) programs are important for the healthy development of individuals and communities, and as long-term economic investments.  The World Bank defines ECD as “the physical, cognitive, linguistic and socio-emotional development of a child from the prenatal stage up to age eight.”3 By age three, a child’s brain has already grown to 80 percent of its full volume, making the period between the prenatal stage up through the child’s third year especially important.4 The development of children during their first few years can prepare them to acquire a wide range of skills later in life and be productive adults, or those early years can be a hindrance to their later success.5 ECD programs begin the continuum of support that children need from birth until they reach adulthood. Programs in low-income areas are even more effective as economic drivers, because, without intervention, children living in poverty have a lower chance of acquiring the proper skills to grow into productive adults.

Counties provide essential services to families with young children, but many counties struggle with insufficient funding.6 Service sharing is one solution that enables counties to work together with other counties, municipalities, school districts, nonprofits, private corporations or other entities to provide early childhood services more efficiently. Intergovernmental service sharing occurs when two or more local government entities cooperate to provide a single service or set of services to residents. Service sharing can also occur between a local government entity and nonprofits, private corporations or philanthropic foundations.

Stat: Child's Brain Growth

By age three, a child’s brain has already grown to 80 percent of its full volume.

This report shows different ways that counties provide high-quality services to children and families by sharing service provision with partners. The analysis examines the role of counties in ECD, challenges and the relationship with the state and federal governments around ECD.  The ECD programs featured in this report work to break cycles of multigenerational poverty and prepare the youngest generation for future academic and economic success. The case studies feature Dakota County (Minn.), Idaho North Central Public Health District, Cuyahoga County (Ohio), Durham County (N.C.) and Bedford County (Pa.); these counties showcase just a few examples of how counties across the nation are caring for their most vulnerable residents.

The Role of Counties in Early Childhood Development

In both low- and high-income areas, counties play a significant role in ECD activities, which include a wide range of health, educational and child-care services for children, especially those aged 0-3 and their families. Some of these services start prior to a child’s birth with prenatal screenings for expectant mothers; others include home visits to families with newborn babies or school preparedness up through when a child enters kindergarten. Pre-kindergarten educational programs, such as Early Head Start, are one example of programs designed specifically for children aged 0-3. These types of programs focus on the social, physical and emotional development of young children.7

Stat: Number One ECD Service

The number one ECD service that counties provide is food and nutritional assistance.

According to a 2017 NACo survey of state associations of counties (referred to as the “NACo survey” in this report), the number one ECD service that counties provide is food and nutrition assistance.8 Other county services that respondents mentioned include pre-kindergarten programs, home visits, health care and child-care services (see Figure 1). An overwhelming majority of respondents indicated that their states do not mandate these services. Of the states that mandate these services, most dictate that counties must provide food and nutrition assistance, child-care services and health care.9

Figure 1: Most Prevalent ECD Programs

Figure 1: Most Prevalent Types of ECD Programs Administered by Counties