Rethinking Early Childhood Policy: Finding Our Way Out of the Silos

By Joe Waters and Sara Peters

It has been 15 years since the death of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-New York). While at times provocative, Moynihan was a keen observer of the systemic barriers facing poor and underserved communities in the United States and respected across both parties for his policy and diplomatic leadership. Accordingly, his views on social policy can be instructive given the current state of domestic affairs and can also help us rethink whether today’s approaches to early childhood education and care are truly positioning all children, regardless of their background, to flourish.

In the early 1970s, Moynihan explicitly warned against the risks associated with emphasizing government programs over government policy (See “Policy vs. program in the ‘70’s”, The Public Interest, Summer 1970). We have, for instance, a federal employment policy; the Employment Act of 1946 established that the federal government would bear principal responsibility for promoting maximum employment. This law goes far beyond the establishment of workforce development, apprenticeships, or vocational rehabilitation programs, and extends across various government agencies, industries, systems, and sectors. The Act also established the Council of Economic Advisors and the Joint Economic Committee to advise the President and Congress on economic policy. These entities and their broad view of the economy allow the President and Congress to act on the goals of the Employment Act in meaningful and proportionate ways.

Unfortunately, the bulk of our country’s current government-sponsored early childhood work is dependent on (and crippled by) a program-first approach to public policy—one that Moynihan spoke so wisely against. U.S. early childhood “policy” is too frequently defined as a set of programs (pre-K, home visiting, child care, etc.) operating in siloes rather than as a coordinated public policy approach connecting singular programs together.

A more comprehensive public policy agenda would help spur investment and collaboration between and across public sector agencies and departments, but also private, philanthropic, and academic stakeholders who are just as critical in ensuring that the proper resources and supports are available for children to develop and thrive. Without such a policy, significant service gaps will continue to exist—gaps which no one service provider can be expected to fix.

Given the wide scope of programs and services that can—and should—influence and impact early childhood development, an overarching public policy approach is absolutely essential for systems realignment and prioritization. A public policy agenda also helps ensure that limited public resources are being used in the most effective and efficient of ways possible and that state and local initiatives are responsive to and complementary of one another.  Although the science of early development has clearly established the first five years of life as the most critical for setting a person on the path to a lifetime of economic success, there is no national policy response commensurate to the scale of the issue at hand.

What would a comprehensive early childhood policy look like?

  • It would be firmly rooted and thoroughly informed by the science of early childhood development, resilience, and adversity. A policy would affirm that brains are developed through responsive, reciprocal relationships between children, their caregivers, and their communities. Programing would be evidence-based, where appropriate and possible.
  • It would be interdisciplinary and inclusive of the expansive array of health, education, and social service domains that play critical roles in addressing children’s developmental, emotional, and educational needs.
  • It would provide autonomy and voice to the nonprofit service providers working with and alongside families to provide culturally appropriate, context-specific programing.
  • It would acknowledge the limits and obstacles in current U.S. social policy. It would recognize that government cannot replace the family, church, synagogue, community and neighborhood organizations, or the other “little platoons of society” that alleviate the distress of children and families and support their healthy functioning and development.
  • Also, a broader policy approach would affirm the importance and value of efforts that support authentic, trusting relationships between children, their caregivers, and others in a child’s life. A policy that in any way compromised the integrity of families, civil society, or the other nodes in the community networks that support children and families would not lead to better outcomes for children, no matter the dollar amount invested.
  • A strong comprehensive early childhood policy also would recognize the interconnections between systems and policies, and seek to leverage those interconnections to improve outcomes for children. For instance, a policy might require the Department of Labor to implement programs to maximize support for families with young children; a policy might also require Housing and Urban Development to consider how the built environment can help support families with young children, and so on.

Moynihan observed that: “Programs relate to a single part of the system; policy seeks to respond to the system in its entirety.” In other words, the program approach seeks to address specific situations and to intervene to preserve or change those situations. The F-35 fighter jet is a program, not our entire defense policy. In early childhood, we too often take the F-35 (programs like child care subsidies or home-visiting) and never demand the larger more comprehensive defense policy.

Over the last decade, many local governments have established large-scale early childhood programs, primarily pre-K programs. Such programs undoubtedly have great benefit when they are high quality, embed continuous program improvement strategies, and are contextually appropriate. Elected leaders who established these programs deserve our praise. However, these programs do not usually represent the establishment of an early childhood policy in these jurisdictions. We can and must do better for our children by adopting a more explicit and comprehensive policy approach. We’ve done it before with everything from employment policy to defense policy, and we can certainly do it again.

A recent biographer has observed that throughout his career Moynihan believed deeply that the United States possessed a moral commitment and responsibility to its children. We have not yet embraced a national policy that matches the gravity and seriousness of our duties to our nation’s children. As a result, our successes have too often been sporadic, our energy misdirected, and opportunity for too many of our children unrealized. May it not be so in the future.

Joe Waters is the co-founder and CEO of Capita. A nonprofit startup ideas lab, Capita works at the intersection of research, policy, social innovation, design, and the arts to explore how the great cultural and social transformations of our day affect young children, and to foster a future in which children and their families flourish. Joe also serves as a Senior Advisor to Openfields, a social innovation and impact consultancy. Prior to starting Capita, Joe was the Executive Vice President of the Institute for Child Success. He is a member of the Board of Directors of AIR Serenbe and the Felician Center.  He graduated from Furman University (BA, history) and earned a master’s degree in divinity from Duke University.

Sara Peters currently serves as the Director of Policy and Evidence at Project Evident. Previously, she served as the Director of Social Innovation at the Sorenson Impact Center, where she led the Center’s Pay for Success practice and social impact finance portfolio. She has also served as a policy consultant to several nonprofits that provide educational programming and supports to underserved children. Sara holds a BA from Princeton University in Politics and an MPP from the University of Cambridge. She serves on Capita’s Board of Directors.