Con Hogan: Early childhood investment is prudent

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Con Hogan, who is on the board of the Permanent Fund for Children and a member of the Green Mountain Care Board. He was secretary the Vermont Agency of Human Services from 1991 to 1999.

It is beginning to look like a substantial investment, proposed by Gov. Phil Scott, in early childhood education and child care will be hitting the cutting room floor in the Vermont Legislature.

This is in spite of the amazing gains that children make with early childhood opportunities and how that benefits all of us, as evidenced by a wealth of national and now Vermont-specific data. From the economic development point of view, the new study Vermont’s Early Care & Learning Dividend tells us that every dollar invested in expanding our early care and learning system would bring a minimal return of over $3 — generalized to the entire population of Vermont children in need of child care. Over the working lifetime of the children served (60 years), the report calculates net benefits of $1.3 billion for Vermont’s citizens and government. This returns on average over $21 million a year.

Every business person is familiar with using a cost-benefit approach in decision-making: where can resources be invested most wisely to yield the greatest return? While the goal of government is not to turn a profit from its citizens, we can take valuable lessons from entrepreneurialism to balance our state budget and better serve our most vulnerable.

I have had the opportunity to examine the most troubled parts of our society — where the vulnerable most frequently fall through the cracks — from the front lines in corrections, mental health and health care, child protection, and human services. And what I have learned over the last 40 years is that when it comes to combatting the expensive and tragic symptoms of social problems such as opiate use, crime, and poor health, prevention yields the best cost-benefit ratio. In other words, we can invest now, or we can pay much more later. And the most cost-effective opportunity to invest is during early childhood, when the brain is being rapidly shaped into a mental foundation that will help or hinder a child’s success for the rest of his or her life, depending on the experiences that child is exposed to.

What I have learned over the last 40 years is that when it comes to combatting the expensive and tragic symptoms of social problems such as opiate use, crime, and poor health, prevention yields the best cost-benefit ratio. In other words, we can invest now, or we can pay much more later.


One prime example is the impact of early experiences on lifelong health. Much work has been done around the correlation between adverse childhood experiences — such as abuse, neglect or a range of household dysfunctions such as witnessing domestic violence, growing up with substance abuse or mental illness, or crime in the home — and well-being in adulthood. The seminal 1998 article on this research, “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults,” explains that one’s adverse childhood experiences “score” (how many of those experiences occurred in childhood) is not only directly correlated to one’s mental, emotional and physical health in adulthood, but also most of the bad things that happen to people when they grow up. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that exposure to stress in early childhood impacts the foundation of one’s decision-making skills as an adult.

For these reasons, giving children a healthy start in life is one our best opportunities to find savings and efficiencies within our health care system — and corrections system, and public education system, and social services in general.

Fortunately, there is some evidence that awareness of this fact is gaining the high ground.

• In January, Gov. Scott recommended an important boost to child care in his budget of $9.5 million for early childhood, including child care.

• Early childhood and affordable child care became a prominent issue in the 2016 election cycle for the first time in this state’s history.

• There is great support, from not only early childhood advocates, but also business organizations such as the Vermont Business Roundtable, who truly recognize early childhood development as an essential economic development issue.

Change is in the air.

We truly hope the Legislature is listening, and that early childhood development and child care get a fair shake in the 2019 budget development.

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  • Matt Young

    Here’s hoping that we are in fact investing in children and not teachers union jobs.

    • Neil Johnson

      It’s called family planning. Apparently we no longer need to do any family planning in Vermont. Kids are so unimportant that our Vermont Government thinks mothers and fathers can be replaced by strangers.

      It’s NOT about children. IF Vermont allowed affordable housing, this problem would be solved immediately. Living on one salary while the other is working part time or staying full time at home will bring remarkable results for children.

      An active, involved parent is FAR better than any school ever devised. Ask any teacher what is the greatest difference? Is the parent involved? Is the parent fighting the school system? My experience as a manager for McDonald’s showed me the difference was alarming. You could immediately tell which parents cared for their children and which parents considered it a very part-time job or inconvenience. Caring is a verb, it require action and commitment.

      Vermont is on the wrong path for our children. Ask any teacher, would they rather have students from a day care or and involved family? There is your answer.

      • Renée Carpenter

        Great comment here! Affordable housing is one part of an answer, as would be minimum income assurance and enough better-paying jobs in rural areas for those who are able to work.

  • Edward Letourneau

    How does this early childhood education help when most children under 5 do not have brains sufficiently developed to learn? — If its drug use we are worried about, fix that problem and stop taxing people to provide childcare for other people.

    • JohnGreenberg

      “most children under 5 do not have brains sufficiently developed to learn” That’s a totally preposterous statement. Learning to speak a language fluently should be ample rebuttal, if one were really needed.

    • rosemariejackowski

      Ed… I almost always agree with you, BUT there is a lot of scientific evidence that proves that the brain is developed enough to ‘learn’ even before birth. Newborns are born able to recognize their mother’s voice, because they have heard it for months while they were still in the womb. As a teacher I have always advocated for teaching additional languages very early on, during pre school if possible. That is the ideal stage in brain development for learning. Children who grow up in households where more than more than one language are spoken are very fortunate.
      Very early brain development is important and that is why I believe that children are usually best cared for in a loving nurturing home where one to one attention can be given by a dedicated parent or grandparent. Institutionalizing the very young in day care centers etc is a very bad idea.

  • John Freitag

    Con, thank you for this commentary on the importance of early childhood education and childcare. The problem is that the State is tapped out on taxes and fees and we will need to make some adjustments in where we spend what we now have. Right now for example our K-12 teachers pay and benefit package are far far in excess of what early childhood educators with the same degree of education and training make.
    While his timing and method of how to address this issue were poor, Governor Scott did in fact focus attention on the need to balance where we make our educational spending choices and provide more support for the early childhood stage.
    In the long term Con, if we want to address your concerns we will have to adjust some priorities and this will mean going up against some of the narrower financial interests of the State’s strongest union the NEA. If all parties sincerely look to the common good and are willing to make some compromises we may be able to make the needed changes. It will be difficult but we can and must do it.

  • Steve Baker

    Has there ever been a study about the benefits of Early Childhood Parenting? Ironic have all studies continue to feed the bloated models pushed by taxpayer funded education. I’d ask, we’re using a study from 1998?

  • rosemariejackowski

    In case you missed this. This is why we should support parents and families.