Essentially all the factors key to healthy child development are very much affected by parental circumstances at a point in time, and almost all the trends in differences in child development (or gaps) by parental incomes, education, and SES are on the upswing at early ages. Conditions at birth, family background, parenting, neighborhoods, social institutions, and economic circumstances all make it more difficult for low-income children, especially minority children, to successfully cross each transition point on their way to elementary school.

The social policy challenges are many, and are not just situated in the health and learning domains; the greater challenge is that medical and educational professionals must interact with social services and deal with fractured patterns of family life, in addition to the children themselves. Effective action requires the integration of policies across the health, education, and family assistance silos if we are to become more successful in boosting mobility from below.

Policy Levers to Open Gates, Reduce Gaps, and Moderate Cumulative Gaps Early On

America is finally beginning to awaken to the reality that the next generation is at risk. [1] But we need to pay more than lip service to make a difference in children's chances for upward mobility. Moreover these challenges confront federal, state, and local authorities, as well as faith-based organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and even some organizations in the for-profit sector. In this final section we focus on some emerging green shoots of hope that need to be nurtured if we are to make progress in opening more opportunity gates and closing the gaps that emerge along the developmental trajectory. We begin with the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and children who begin life with a parent who is not yet prepared. We then move onto other policies that can make a difference in the lives of young children.

Unwanted Pregnancy at Young Ages: An Agency Problem

Despite the somewhat gloomy data cited above, the U.S. is making some progress in improving children's life chances through the reduction in the numbers of early unplanned pregnancies. For example, U.S. fertility is at an all-time low, reaching a rate of only 1.86 children per woman of childbearing age in 2013. More importantly, fertility has reached this record low because of falling birthrates among teens and women in their early 20s, bringing the U.S. teen pregnancy rate closer to that in other rich countries (Hamilton et al. 2013; Curtin et al. 2014). Much of this success is due to the dissemination of long-acting reversible contraceptives, which are much more effective than conventional birth control (Secura et al. 2014; Sawhill 2014).

  • [1] This is more than 30 years after the then-Secretary of Education, Ted Bell, sounded the alarm in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk.
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