Early Childhood Experiences Support a Healthier Bottom Line for Nation's Employers | Commentary

As the president of a foundation and a former CEO, we offer yet another reason why members of Congress and policymakers nationwide should recognize the wisdom of expanding preschool programs: Based on clear research, we know that quality early learning today could lead to lower health care costs in the years to come.

This is a key message in a brief released this month at an international summit in Manhattan of 250 business people, policymakers and education experts. Titled “A Healthy Bottom Line,” the brief begins with some harsh truths about the impact of poor health on the profitability of businesses and the spending power of consumers.

Despite the highest per capita health care spending, the U.S. ranks No. 27 out of 34 developed countries in terms of life expectancy. Nationally, spending on health insurance consumes about 50 percent of private industry’s profits in a typical year. Meanwhile, sick days and low productivity due to ill health costs the U.S. economy nearly $226 billion every year. Poor health also limits the ability to buy goods and services, because unpaid medical bills are the leading cause of personal bankruptcy.

These problems have multiple causes, but expanding access to childcare and preschool programs that foster social and emotional development is a smart first step toward a solution. One groundbreaking study that followed 1,000 individuals from birth to adulthood found that kids who exhibited more self-control during their preschool years had substantially better health and were much less likely to be substance abusers 30 years later.

Another study from Pennsylvania State University found that children rated by kindergarten teachers as being more cooperative and helpful had better mental health in their 20s. High quality preschool programs emphasize this type of behavioral development. Pennsylvania’s Pre-K Counts program, for example, reduced problem behaviors from 22 percent to four percent.

Emerging research also documents the long-term impact that early childhood experiences can have on nutrition and physical health. A study that followed children who participated in North Carolina’s well-regarded Abecedarian program, which includes high-quality pre-K, found that the boys were nearly four times more likely to exercise regularly and less likely to be substance abusers as young adults. They also had significantly lower risk factors for heart disease, stroke and diabetes in their mid-30s.

Two other benefits are especially important to everyone who cares about education and the future workforce. First, enrollment in quality programs enables kids to be screened for physical and mental problems, such as speech and hearing impairments and autism, which will decrease the amount of money they will ultimately spend on health care. A study of Head Start, for example, found children who participated in that program were more likely to get immunizations, dental care and health care.

Second, multiple long-term studies have demonstrated that high quality early childhood education can impact high school graduation, college attendance, even future employment. In turn, the more education a person receives, the less likely they are to smoke, the more like they are to be physically active, and have a longer life expectancy. Steady employment also enables families and individuals to buy more nutritious food, provide better childcare to their own children and access better health care services.

For these reasons and more, business leaders from around the nation are encouraging current and aspiring lawmakers to continue making quality early child care and education a top priority. It’s one of the smartest steps we can take, right now, to raise healthier kids, foster healthier communities and enjoy a healthier bottom line for employers nationwide.

Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. John Pepper is the former chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble and co-chairman of the ReadyNation CEO Task Force on Early Childhood.