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Preschool Matters Today

For Whom Does the Bell Toll?

October 4, 2010

It’s Time We Heed The Words of John Donne

The latest Census Bureau data (collected in 2009 and early this year) show the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. is the widest on record. Last year, the top 20 percent of households—those earning more than $100,000 a year—received 49.4 percent of all household income. The bottom 20 percent—those earning less than $20,000—received 3.4 percent. The ratio of earnings between the top and bottom is about double what it was when the Census Bureau began tracking in 1967. Median household income fell 2.9 percent nationwide, from $51,726 to $50,221. It rose in only one state — North Dakota. Now 43.6 million Americans are living in poverty, the most in the 51 years the Census estimates have been published.

Alarming as they are, these numbers are but the latest installment in a decades-long trend in which expanding income inequality was driven more by growth in income for those at the top than declines for those in the middle or at the bottom. That has clearly changed as middle- and lower- income families have lost ground.

This transformation in the well-being of most Americans has already produced negative consequences not least of which are reductions in marriage and birth rates and the mobility of families. There is another consequence in the making: A reduction in economic mobility for those whose future incomes will be vital to the nation’s prosperity: our youngest children.

Confronting this threat now with high-priority investments in high-quality early education for children from both low- and middle-income families as part of broader education reform would go a long way toward securing their futures. Yet early childhood education is not a substantive part of most conversations about education reform or broader policy responses to the long-term economic decline of the middle class and rising tide of poverty.  Instead there is a focus on a variety of ill-considered policy changes that are unlikely to improve education or the economy.

Some economists have called on the federal government to step in with a major program of aid to the states that is more permanent than the stimulus (which is beginning to run out.) I worry that governors and state legislatures will not make good use of such aid.  Instead, I favor more competitive federal grants for education reform, including grants for early education for states that are willing to innovate and set high standards. States would have to match these grants, though not necessarily dollar for dollar.

Whatever mechanism prevails, the point is that one is urgently needed. The time has arrived for all levels of government to work more effectively together for the common good. Encouraging news comes by way of a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures pointing out that after the enormous collapse in state revenue most states are predicting some rise in revenue next year. That’s good but it will be years before most states and the huge cohort of families who have lost ground over the past decade get back on their feet. In the meantime, we would all do well to heed the wisdom of English poet John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Steve Barnett

Co-Director, NIEER