Building a Stronger Memphis: Investing in Early Childhood Wellness

The Urban Child Institute's mission is to promote the health and well-being of children from conception to age three in Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee. Over years of coordination and outreach, the Urban Child Institute has garnered relationships with like-minded individuals, organizations, and institutions as diverse as the population of Shelby County itself. Some of these partners are community grassroots organizations lead by native Memphians, while some partners are internationally recognized research institutions headed by some of the leading experts on child development. Although these organizations span wide geographic, demographic, and economic spans, the overall goal always remains the same: promoting research and policy focused on the health and well-being of children.

The Urban Child Institute wishes to promote a safer, healthier Memphis and Shelby County for everyone, especially children, to enjoy. In this pursuit, one of the easiest, most cost-efficient, and prudent ways to create a better Memphis and Shelby County is to invest in our youngest children. Child policy advocates, like the Urban Child Institute, often champion what is called the "Heckman Curve." This curve, backed by years of policy and scientific research, demonstrates that investing in children during the youngest years of life is one of the most cost-effective strategies available to policymakers when promoting policy. The general idea is that the younger the child, the more cost-effective a policy would be. A way of viewing this is instead of trying to fix issues or scenarios in the future, it is simply better to prevent these issues or scenarios from occurring.

The gist of the approach is basically invest in children now, have exceedingly better outcomes later. And, in recent years, the federal government seems to be on board with such sentiment. On the national level, a recent study found that federal programs investing in children increased by about 17.5 percent since 2008. Without a doubt, this is an incredible victory for child policy advocates. However, on a larger scale, only 7.9% of the entire United States federal budget for 2012 involved investments for children. So, although in absolute terms child investments have gained major ground in the realm of the federal budget, in relative terms child investments are still a minuscule margin of the entire budget.

Such funding statistics are important to bear in mind when politician's often tout the importance of education and our children's future. As it currently stands, a recently published report indicates that the United States ranks 17th of 40 countries in an overall index of cognitive skills and educational attainment. This rank is a grim illumination of the educational outcomes of the United States' schools, indicating that the United States' educational pathway is more "average" than exceptional. The key lesson from this research is that the highest scoring countries (Finland and South Korea) have much larger budgets dedicated to early childhood development and education.

When it comes to focusing on optimal child development, politicians are not the only ones that should be held responsible for macro-level change. Echoing the research and parenting pieces and the Urban Child Institute's Baby Small campaign, parents and caretakers have an incredibly important role in the healthy development of children – it is not simply just about governmental policies. Change requires interplay, where even in a policy sense, parents and citizens advocating for child policy hold an obligation to promote and vote for governmental policy catered specifically toward children. Indeed, in the November elections, Memphis area politicians allowed the voters decide the outcome of a piece of legislation that would help fund pre-kindergarten classrooms for all Memphis and Shelby County children. The referendum ultimately failed to pass, but simply shows that parents, caretakers, and citizens alike are all able to be part of a solution in promoting a healthier, safer, and more child-friendly Memphis and Shelby County.