Feb 06, 2015VTDigger.org

Invest in early childhood development for a skilled workforce, legislators heard on Friday morning at the Statehouse.

Rob Grunewald, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, told the House Committee on Human Services and the Senate Health and Welfare Committee that economists are looking to the first few years of life for keys to improving the country’s workforce and long-term economic health.

“Investments in early childhood development yield high public returns,” explained Grunewald. A well-trained, well-skilled workforce will lead to an economy that’s producing and growing, he said.

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Grunewald showed two charts of Vermont’s workforce numbers going forward and job growth needs. In the forecast, jobs will require workers to be better-educated and bring stronger skills to the plate.

Earlier this week, Gov. Peter Shumlin spoke about his plans to improve the state’s skilled workforce.

At the Federal Reserve, Grunewald testified, economists “are convinced” that investing in human capital at the very earliest ages will “get the highest rate of return.”

And the benefits of those investments are first to the children and their families, but ultimately to society overall — the taxpayers, Grunewald said.

“You don’t even have to like children to achieve a higher return on investment, you can be Scrooge before his enlightenment,” Grunewald told legislators. Early investments, he said, are linked to: fewer low-weight and pre-term births; fewer emergency room visits; reduced child abuse and neglect; reduced grade retention and special education needs; reduced worker absenteeism, and more.

Money is tight in Montpelier this year, but, said Matthew Melmed, executive director of ZERO TO THREE, a national nonprofit, investing in early childhood development is a matter of moving around existing expenditures.

“The bottom line is you are spending the money now, you are just spending it on different things,” Melmed said. “You are spending it down the road.”

Last year, the Legislature passed a universal pre-Kindergarten mandate. In November, the state announced the implementation would be delayed until the 2016-17 school year.

Melmed gave legislators a quick lesson in neurobiology. A very young child is at the peak of the brain’s cognitive function, Melmed explained, walking the committees through slides that show brain development at different ages. “It’s not that we don’t continue to learn for the rest of our lives, but our ability to think, to take in, to reason is at the highest.”

Melmed testified about language development and socio-economic differences that have been studied, referring to it as “the language gap.” The diversity of language that kids are exposed to from the age of 18 months on has a big impact on development, and studies show that there’s a socio-economic link.

He said, “Higher income children with more educated parents tend to hear a lot more words.”

By third grade, this word gap grows, and that, Melmed said, “is a significant predictor for how you are going to do in school, how you relate, how you learn, how you get along.”

Success in school and life stem from those very early experiences and relationships, the research shows.

“We tend to take care of problems in our society after they happen, and what the science is telling us is they can be taken care of very early on,” Melmed said.

Childcare can be an important resource for childhood development, but costs can be prohibitive for many Vermonters. The cost of childcare for working families is at crisis point, Dr. Lynette Fraga, the executive director of Child Care Aware of America, told lawmakers.

In 30 states and Washington D.C., the cost for an infant in a child care center “was higher than a year’s tuition and fees at a four-year public college,” Fraga testified.

“Expanding access to high quality, affordable child care is a national concern for government, business leaders, and families alike,” Fraga said.

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