More than 106,000 Pennsylvania children ages five or younger have had more than one adverse childhood experience in their lives — things like witnessing domestic violence or losing a parent — while roughly 113,000 of the state's children eligible for Pre-K Counts or Head Start can't attend due to budget shortfalls.
A new report from the Council for a Strong America highlights this disparity across the U.S., and touches on an issue increasingly important to employers struggling to find employees that fit well into their organizations: the character and social-emotional strengths of their talent starts during the first five years of their lives.
The report makes recommendations for each state — for Pennsylvania, those include an additional $65 million state investment in Pre-K Counts and $10 million more for Head Start, which would enroll an estimated 8,400 more children in those programs, and $35 million in additional investment in child care services, reducing the existing waitlist for those services by nearly 1,800.
"What's on the table is a $75 million increase to quality pre-K that Gov. Tom Wolf included in his budget recommendation in February," said Steve Doster, Pennsylvania state director for the Council for a Strong America. "This is all part of a growing effort in the state to ramp up access to high-quality pre-K in the state; eventually, we'd like to see all of those 113,000 kids enrolled in the programs."
In Allegheny County last year, more than half of the county's three- and four-year-olds — roughly 7,300 — lacked access to high-quality pre-K, according to the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children.
"Not having child care means that children are missing out on the opportunity to be in high-quality programs that help them to grow socially, emotionally and cognitively," said Lissa Geiger-Shulman, policy director for PAEYC. "Children under five experience the most rapid periods of brain development, so being in an environment with attentive caregivers who can interact positively with children, challenge them, and foster positive development is very important."
While both the governor and CSA are recommending an additional $35 million for child care services, including child care subsidies for low-income families, House Bill 218, which passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives last week, proposes $28 million in cuts to those services, while adding only $25 million of the recommended $75 million in pre-K funding.
"Not having access to child care subsidies means families can't work," Geiger-Shulman said. "Parents may have to turn down job offers, or if they take a job, they may be placing their child in an unstable environment or using a patchwork of temporary caregivers that may not necessarily provide what's best for the child's development. Parents may also have to place their child in a lower-quality program because it is all that they can afford."
Jake Witherell, chief operating officer for Schell Games, a game designer and developer in Station Square, said the benefits of increased access to pre-K early in life are felt by employers when those children join the workforce.
"We have a very talented workforce that we rely on," he said. "Everything we do is very labor intensive. We're not a manufacturing plant where machines are doing everything; we have to rely on our talent to produce the games and experiences we make for clients, and that talent was once one, two, three, four and five years old."
As a commissioner on the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission, Witherell said he has studied the need for greater early childhood intervention in the state, and pointed to its positive impacts not only on learning outcomes, but also for more nuanced behavioral ones, as well. The CSA report points to a Zogby survey of more than 300 business leaders nationwide that found that more than 60 percent believe it’s more difficult to find job candidates with adequate social-emotional skills than candidates with adequate technical skills. More than 90 percent agreed that workers' formative years, especially the first five years of their lives, had an impact on their emotional and behavioral skills as adults.
"It's so crazy to me that we invest so heavily as a state and as a nation in things like jails rather than things like high-quality early learning because we're investing in the bad outcomes rather than trying to solve the issues," Witherell said.