By Erin Duffy
In 2021, the New York Times published a startling bar graph showing how much governments across the globe spend on care for young children.
Norway topped the list
, spending, on average, nearly $30,000 per child each year.
Where was the United States? All the way at the bottom, below Chile, Slovenia, Germany, Australia, and a lengthy list of other countries that invest more in early childhood care and education. By comparison, the U.S. spends about $500 per child annually.
Barry Ford, a keynote speaker at this year’s Thriving Children, Families, and Community Conference in Kearney, Nebraska, doesn’t see child care as a luxury, a nice-to-have, or the sole responsibility of families and parents.
He sees it as a matter of global security, competitiveness, and infrastructure that builds children’s brains and allows their parents to work and participate in their local economy. It is as necessary to everyday life as bridges and roads.
“We’re at a moment in world history where the United States is competing against global powers—China, other advanced eastern and western economies—who are investing a whole lot in early childhood,” Ford said. “They see this as central to the future and the success of their economies. So, we limit ourselves, economically, financially, intellectually. We’re losing incredible potential brainpower by not investing in every child.”
Ford is the president and CEO of Council for a Strong America
, a national, bipartisan coalition of leaders from the military, law enforcement, and business sectors who support early childhood education. On Sept. 19, he’ll speak at the close of the fifth annual Thriving Children Conference. Dr. Dana Suskind, a pediatric surgeon and parent advocate, will give opening remarks.
The free Thriving Children event focuses on the connections between early childhood education and community and economic vitality. The conference attracts community leaders in fields like business, education, health care, and economic development who want to build a better early childhood system. Learn more about the conference and register here
Council for a Strong America is composed of what Ford calls “unexpected messengers”: not just teachers advocating for their field and their students, but county sheriffs, retired generals and admirals, and business executives who believe fervently in giving kids the best start possible.
Advocating for children isn’t a controversial issue, Ford said. No politician wants to be caught on a microphone saying they don’t care about kids. But he notes that the needs of children and families have been under-prioritized, even though the evidence and the science behind early childhood education is compelling.
In his career as a nonprofit executive, first for afterschool programs and then for the broader array of issues for which the Council for Strong America advocates, Ford discovered that the messenger matters as much, if not more, than the message itself.
“I come to Council for a Strong America and, all of a sudden, I have a posse of police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors, of business leaders … executives and chamber of commerce, and retired admirals and generals who are willing to say the most important thing you can do for community safety, or to support the economic vitality of our community, of our state, and of our nation, or to support our future national security, is to invest in the welfare and the thriving of very young children,” Ford said in an interview with the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska.
He remembers policymakers sitting up a little bit straighter and listening a little more closely during a federal appropriations hearing as a general spoke about the need for early childhood investment.
The general told them that “one of the most important ways you can spend the next dollar, if you care about national security, is investing in the welfare of that 1-, 2-, and 3-year-old,” Ford said.
These are “deeply patriotic” people who care about the future of America and the communities they patrol or work in, Ford said. They see quality care and education as one solution to prevent crime, prepare future military members, and build a talented workforce.
Ford admits it can sometimes feel like these important messages are being brushed aside or overlooked. Despite the spotlight on child care during the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been little in the way of federal legislation to bolster early care and education.
But the tide is turning, he believes. States and local communities have been at the forefront of proposing solutions to expand and strengthen child care. New Mexico has increased child care subsidies for families, while Washington, D.C., is sending one-time bonus checks to early educators. Colorado created a new early childhood department. Nebraska communities like Gothenburg and Boone County have worked together to fundraise and build new child care centers.
“One of the things I want the audience to get from my talk is, despite the levels of polarization and dysfunction we see, particularly at the federal level in our country, that concern and thoughtfulness about what to do about children, about families, and how to support them ... is becoming a more deeply bipartisan issue,” Ford said.
“The need for investment, the need for support, the need for systemic change around early childhood investments is true in rural America, it’s true in urban America, it’s true in suburban America,” he said. “We have asked too much of our families, we’ve put too much of a burden on them, and we are short-changing our children in the process.”
Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at firstname.lastname@example.org