When looking to create positive impact on early childhood development, donors sometimes underestimate the role of the largest funder, provider and regulator of early childhood services – the government.
With regard to funding, the public sector spends more on early childhood care and services in a single month than the Gates, Ford and Walton Family Foundations spend on all issues in an entire year – combined. In 2014, the federal budget allocated approximately $20 billion to subsidize childcare for over a million children, over $11 billion to provide healthcare to more than eight million children, and over $10 billion to supplement the diet of more than five million infants and toddlers who lacked access to adequate nutrition. In addition to the federal government, state and local legislatures also provide substantial resources to support early childhood development, including over $5 billion to fund state Pre-K programs and over $3 billion to subsidize medical services. All told, public funding for programs benefitting young children is estimated to exceed $50 billion per year.
In terms of provision of services, the government’s role is also a central one. For example, the government is the primary provider of early childhood care in the U.S., especially for needy families. Of the 37% of low-income children who attend preschool, 88% attend a public program. Over the years, programs have been added and cut, resulting in an early childhood “system” that is more a collection of uncoordinated programs than a cohesive fabric – a “patchwork quilt.” This situation represents both a challenge and an opportunity: donors can play an important role in pushing for more effective spending, helping to bridge spending gaps, and increasing their own impact by leveraging existing public sector dollars and programs.