It could be argued that “early childhood education in the United States” is far less important than many other policy issues. The world faces major environmental issues such as global warming. Third World poverty is far more intense and oppressive than its American variant. We face issues in how to run a global economy, with large multinational corporations and intertwined financial markets, so as to keep the system stable and avoid having politics dominated by these powerful economic entities. We face religious and cultural strife. We face the challenge of combating global terrorism without giving up our freedoms. Closer to home, high immigration rates raise fears among many Americans.
Given all these global issues, what is the comparative importance of high-quality preschool for all American four-year-olds? What is the comparative importance of making sure that all Americans have access to high-quality child care, high-quality pre-natal care, and if needed, help with parenting issues?
The United States remains the most powerful nation on Earth. A key issue is whether the U.S. will have the broad-based economic prosperity that helps support a mature and generous American politics.
As Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman argues in his 2005 book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, a U.S. society with sluggish growth of per capita earnings for most households is likely to be mean-spirited in many ways. If most U.S. households are having a tough time economically, this tends to reduce their support for environmental protection. It reduces support for helping the Third World. Sluggish economic growth for most Americans contributes to increased fears of possible threats, such as terrorism, immigration, or religious or racial minorities. A bad economy increases the appeal of simple answers, even authoritarian answers.
Over the last three decades, real earnings have grown sluggishly for most Americans. For example, in research I did with my colleague Susan Houseman, we found that from 1979 to 2006, real wage growth for 90% of all U.S. workers lagged behind the productivity growth of the U.S. economy. If this bottom 90% had experienced wage growth as fast as overall U.S. productivity, their wages in 2006 would have been over $700 billion higher. Imagine how different the U.S. economy and U.S. culture would be if 90% of all workers had wages higher by $700 billion.
It is arguable that the sluggish growth of earnings for most Americans has contributed to the current mean-spiritedness and dysfunction of American politics.
For a better American politics and culture, we need to figure out how to improve the earnings of the lower and middle portions of the U.S. income distribution. High-quality early childhood programs are one way to significantly improve the earnings of all Americans, with particularly large relative benefits for low-income, working-class, and middle-income Americans. Early childhood programs are not the only way to do so. But early childhood programs are particularly effective in boosting broad-based economic prosperity per dollar invested. Early childhood programs have a strong political appeal. Who can in good conscience blame a four-year-old for the circumstances of his or her upbringing?