“It’s the economy, stupid.” As the 2016 presidential campaign heats to a boil, James Carville’s immortal words have never been truer. The irony is that most economists will tell you that presidents have very little control over the economy in the short-term.
One candidate, former senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton, understands this, and she is pushing for policies that will have a bigger impact on the 2036 election than on the 2016 election. In her July 18 conversation with Charlie Rose, Clinton cited the research of Nobel laureate in economics James J. Heckman, saying “early childhood education is the single best investment for growing the economy.”
Senator Sanders made his name inveighing against “the top 1%” and promisingfree college for all; Donald Trump shook up the Washington consensus with his focus on international trade deals; and Senator Cruz pushed for a flat tax, a seemingly innovative idea that was actually enacted twice in the U.S. in the 19thcentury. Expanding early childhood education may not fire up voters the way lower taxes do, and it doesn’t have a built-in constituency the way free college does (18- to 22-year-olds can vote; three-year-olds can’t), but empirical research shows that it’s the right way to go about securing our long-term prosperity and competitiveness.
Though investing in toddlers may not seem like the surest path to GDP growth, recent brain-development research shows that the window of neuroplasticity for oral language, the foundation for literacy, occurs between birth and five years. Despite recent expansions to Head Start and a few regional experiments with universal pre-kindergarten, most American students start school at the age of five. If we want Americans to be productive, successful participants in the economy during their working lives, we must invest in them during their brain-development window.
Expanding early childhood education should be a top priority for the next president, but it won’t be easy in a deeply divided Washington. Even if a bill hits the floor of the House the first day it is gaveled into session, we can’t expect to see change anytime soon: Congress moves at a glacial pace these days, and the 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 sessions were the least productive in history. While we wait for our politicians to catch up with what our teachers and economists already know, we can support parents and early caregivers with books, games, and apps that help them become the teachers that their young children don’t have.
Tools for parents are not a substitute for comprehensive federal investments, but they can make a big difference. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that reading aloud to their children from birth is one of the most important things that parents can do, and a recent study by the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, “Transmedia Meets the Digital Divide,” found that parents from underserved communities desperately need materials to help them prepare their children to succeed in school.
At You TELL Me Stories, we provide free interactive picture-book apps and low-cost print books. Our content is unique in that it models dialogic reading, a technique that has been proven to develop oral language, and that can be used by parents with limited literacy or English language proficiency. Additionally, there are also plenty of other great products on the market. Until Washington acts, non-profits and ordinary citizens must help get tools like these into the hands of every parent.
With three months to go until the election, I expect to hear an awful lot of proposals and promises for creating more American jobs, increasing wages, and lowering the tax burden on businesses. I expect to hear both presidential candidates—not to mention the hundreds of Senate and House candidates—tell me that they know the secret to economic growth. I’ve made up my mind, though. I’m voting for any candidate who wants to invest in our youngest children.