AECF_KC_PR_ECE-badge02_150x150The KIDS COUNT policy report, The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success, was co-released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Kentucky Youth Advocates. We release a lot of reports, as does Casey – I know that.  But this one made me think as deeply as any “report card” styled brief that I have read in a long time.  The report builds a strong case for investing in quality early learning opportunities and supporting parents to ensure their young children are on the right track for success. The first eight years of a child’s life are critical for developing needed knowledge for school and social skills.

To share the multiple important aspects of this report, we plan to write a blog “mini-series” on the report. There are many “big lessons” on which to reflect. What are the overall national lessons? What are the lessons especially germane to Kentucky? What are the surprises in the report? And what does all of this have to say to moms and dads; faith communities and community centers; schools and businesses; and to elected leaders at the local, state and federal levels?

This opening blog will focus on the role of economic security in the first eight years of life.

In Kentucky, 52 percent of children under age nine live below 200 percent of the poverty line ($46,566 for a family of two adults and two children). (If you are interested in probing a bit more deeply about the poverty level, tune in to Planet Money September 21 podcast “The Trouble with the Poverty Line.”)

The challenge to ensure that hard-working Kentucky families get a break is not new but perhaps has never been more important. And what inspires and infuriates me at the same time is that we have pragmatic and proven solutions at hand to get serious about a real “war on poverty.”

As a start, we can support parents in providing the environment their children need to thrive by ensuring families have what they need to make ends meet. For example, a state earned income tax credit (EITC) that piggybacks off of the federal EITC would help low-income working families keep more of their hard earned dollars to provide for their children and increase family stability.

Secondly, we can restore the state’s Child Care Assistance Program which had funding cut earlier this year. Those recent cuts to the Kentucky Child Care Assistance Program are making it difficult for low-income working parents to pay for quality care, and many now face the tough decision of quitting their jobs or leaving their children in potentially unsafe child care situations. Restoring funding to this program would keep Kentucky parents working and ensure children are in quality child care that helps them prepare for kindergarten.

Another aspect of family economic supports is around expanding affordable opportunities for youngsters. We know that quality early learning opportunities, such as preschool, can especially help low-income children be ready to enter kindergarten. Though Kentucky had been a leader in offering preschool, only 35 percent of low-income three and four year old children in Kentucky are enrolled compared to the national average of 37 percent. Expanding preschool to all three and four year olds in families earning income up to the self-sufficiency standard (200 percent of the federal poverty line) would help more kids be prepared to enter kindergarten and also pay dividends for the future Kentucky workforce.

A recent national poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research showed that 89 percent of voters think early education and child care should be more affordable and 86 percent of voters believe the federal government should help by investing in quality early learning opportunities for children. That means that it’s time for our state and federal elected leaders to acknowledge the crucial need for this type of investment and make it a priority.  That kind of smart investment pays off for communities by giving families an economic edge in their checkbook while giving kids an edge in their healthy development.

Finally, if Kentucky leaders really want to invest in young children, they could ensure that payday loans are not a debt trap for families. We can change that environment by a variety of common sense measures. The only missing ingredient? Political courage in Frankfort.

I was tempted to open this mini-series with a focus that was a bit more eye-catching. (That will be next week’s topic!) But until we attack economic security, the early childhood effort is going to lag behind. That is going to mean re-sensitizing all of us – grassroots citizens and elected leaders – that poverty is not an acceptable Kentucky ugly.

When – and only when – Kentucky leaders get serious about changing the economic trajectory for families can we begin to improve that life trajectory for those first eight years of life.