Anne-Marie Slaughter

From the emergence of Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) to Russian expansionism and China’s rise, there is no shortage of national security challenges facing the US. But, as a new report - ‘Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages’ - demonstrates, nothing poses a more potent threat to America’s future than the failure to provide adequate care and education to children under the age of five.

If young children do not receive high-quality care from educated professionals who understand how to stimulate and shape brain development, the next generation of Americans will suffer from an ever-widening achievement gap relative to their counterparts in other advanced countries and emerging competitors. Yet, Americans pay these trained professionals the same wages paid to those who park their cars, walk their dogs, flip their burgers and mix their drinks. The implication is clear: American children require no more nuanced attention than animals or inanimate objects.

This is a grave error. Early childhood care can shape a person’s lifelong capacity for learning, emotional resilience, confidence and independence. In fact, providing high-quality care that engages and instructs children in their first five years of life has a greater impact on their development than any other intervention over the course of their lifetime.

This is not new information. The book Neurons to Neighbourhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, published more than a decade ago by the National Academy of Sciences, begins by acknowledging that, from conception to the first day of kindergarten, the pace of development exceeds “that of any subsequent stage of life”. That development “is shaped by a dynamic and continuous interaction between biology and experience.”

This observation is now backed by neuroscience, which has identified how the brain develops over that period and has created a system for measuring learning gaps. Such research has confirmed that building the brain is just as important as feeding the body to produce healthy, intelligent, productive and resilient adults.

A recent study tallied the results of the Carolina Abecedarian Project, a North Carolina social experiment that began in the early 1970s. The study compared two sets of disadvantaged children, with one set receiving excellent nutrition and high-quality, stimulating care for eight hours a day from birth to age five, and the other receiving ordinary formula and care. Four decades later, the adults who had received better care were not only physically healthier; they were more than four times likelier to have a college degree.

Clearly, there is a lot more to early-childhood care than setting out juice and cookies, supervising naps and taking children to the playground. According to Megan Gunnar, who specialises in the intersection of developmental psychology and neuroscience, a good early childhood caregiver “requires [the] capacity to analyse what’s happening in the moment” and determine what concept - whether a numerical concept or one related to language or physics - the child could be learning. Responding “in the moment, dynamically, really takes analytic skills, executive function, ordering and sequencing and knowing a lot of information”.

Unfortunately for America’s children, the high-functioning circuits in the caregiver’s prefrontal cortex that these skills demand are directly affected by stress. And, in the US, the vast majority of early-childhood workers are under enormous economic stress. In 2012, almost half of all child care workers’ families received some kind of federal public support, from food stamps to children’s health insurance.

Such economic stress does not decrease with education. A male teacher working in the civilian labour force with a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2012 had an average annual salary of $88,000 (Dh323,664). Early childhood educators with the same qualifications had an average annual salary of $27,000-28,000.

The exception is the US military, which pays teachers according to the same scale as other defence department employees, based on criteria like training, education, seniority and experience. In other words, the segment of the US government that is directly responsible for upholding national security recognises the need to attract and retain highly educated workers to provide care and early learning to the children of all employees. Could this be because the military and civilian leaders of the US defence establishment have seen first-hand the costs of stunted intellectual growth, hyperactivity and lack of impulse control?

To compete in a digital global economy, the US - and indeed, any country - needs a capable, well educated, innovative and healthy workforce. The development of such a workforce begins at birth. Anyone can change a diaper, but not everyone can engage, stimulate and respond to a baby or a toddler in a way that will build neurons, much less impart skills calibrated to the child’s stage of development.

The US has the world’s most dynamic technological sector - not least because it offers the high salaries needed to attract the best talent. You get what you pay for and Americans are paying far too little for their children to thrive.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, is the author of The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World.–Project Syndicate