Strengthen Shelby County by Investing in Early Childhood

Of the close to 15,000 children born in Shelby County each year, more than half (56%) are born to families living in poverty. This means that a family of four has an annual income below $22,350. Almost half of our youngest families in poverty are actually living on annual incomes closer to $10,000.1

Deep and pervasive early childhood disadvantage threatens the future of our community. Early childhood is a period of astonishing brain development, and the disadvantages of birth into a low-income household subject the developing brain to high levels of toxic stress. These disadvantages, in turn, can lead to a range of poor developmental outcomes.

For example, poor children are likely to be behind their more affluent classmates when they arrive at school. As a group, they reach kindergarten with lower reading and math skills, as well as with less well-developed social and behavioral skills.2  Differences in kindergarten readiness lead to later achievement gaps and – still later – to differences in school success and even to differences in adult outcomes. While almost all middle-income kids will complete high school, for example, the odds are roughly even for a child born into poverty in Shelby County.3,4

But just as adversity early in a child’s life can be especially harmful, so too is early childhood a particularly promising time to intervene. Early intervention is more effective because of the malleability of the developing brain, and high-quality early investments show impressive long-term returns. When at-risk children receive careful interventions early in life, they were much less likely later on to:

  • Needs special education,
  • Be held back in shcool,
  • Drop out of high school,
  • Become involved in drugs or crime,
  • Become teen parents,
  • Depend on welfare

These gains make investing in early childhood a wise community development strategy. Conservatively, early childhood investment returns $3 for every dollar invested. These gains come in the form of increased earnings for individuals, coupled with decreased costs to society. If we include measures of crime reduction, the returns on early childhood investment increase significantly.5  These are the reasons why the nation’s law enforcement community strongly supports high quality early childhood interventions.6,7

A comprehensive early childhood investment agenda for Shelby County would a range of interventions in order to reach children most at-risk. Gold standard scientific evaluations suggest that Shelby County should follow a 4-point strategy:

  • Strengthen existing home visiting programs and extend their reach,
  • Expand access to high quality early care and education. This should take the form of expanding the number of Head Start and Early Head Start slots, and support for efforts to make access to the highest quality early care and education more affordable,
  • Expand access to voluntary, state-supported pre-kindergarten, and
  • Link these efforts through a comprehensive data sharing system, emphasizing both program evaluations and related assessments of child outcomes.

To help establish this effort, The Urban Child Institute is best positioned to help build two aspects of an early childhood shared data system. These include efforts to:

  1. Monitor the reach (both in numbers served, and across a range of demographic dimensions) of existing programs in each of these categories. This information will help us understand the scope of unmet need, and any lapses and redundancies in current service provision.
  2. Identify gold-standard measures of child outcomes. Build a shared early childhood data system keyed to these outcome measures. This will help programs to move toward best-practices, and help us understand both short and long term progress toward key benchmarks, including kindergarten readiness, reading at grade level by 4th grade, and high school graduation, and ensure that local dollars invested go toward those programs with the strongest likelihood for evidence based success.

The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County. Memphis: The Urban Child Institute; Kirp, David 2009. The Sandbox Investment; Lee, V. E. & Burkam, D. T. 2002. Inequality at the starting gate: Social background differences in achievement as children begin school. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute; National Center for Children in Poverty. 2006. Effective Early Learning: What every policymaker and educator should know.; Snow, C. 2005. “From literacy to learning.” Harvard Education Letter, July/August.

Marie Sell and Doug Imig. 2011. “Family Income and School Readiness;” The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 2006. “A Comprehensive Early Childhood Investment Strategy.”

Doug Imig. “The Class of 2025.” The Urban Child Institute.

Council on Economic Development. 2006. The Economic Promise of Investing in High-Quality Preschool. New York: Author; Arthur J. Rolnick and Rob Grunewald, 2007. “Early Intervention on a Large Scale.” Education Week. January 4.

Richard K. Thomas. 2010. Shelby County Head Start Community Assessment Update. Memphis and Shelby County Children’s Databook 2010. Memphis: The Urban Child Institute. National Center for Children in Poverty. 2010. Tennessee: Demographics of Poor Children. 2010 Provisional Tennessee Birth VAoP Statistics (7/7/11).