When we Americans contemplate our nation’s future, we tend to focus on things like livability, economic growth, job opportunities and a skilled workforce. While each of these presents its own challenges, an unexpected solution may well be a focus on early childhood development, supported by Jewish commitment to the community.
Studies show that how we nurture and support children during their first three years of life has a huge impact on their future and the future of society as a whole. This reflects the wisdom of a Jewish proverb that tells us to think of children not as cups to be filled but as lights to be kindled. Investing in early childhood development is an opportunity for Jewish philanthropists to perform tikun olam — repairing the world.
When it comes to early-childhood development, prenatal to age three is the new kindergarten and pre-K. A baby forms 700 neural connections every second during its first 12 months, according to research at Harvard. That’s why early childhood is critical to achievement later. Programs that support children under age three — along with their parents, caregivers, and communities — could alleviate many of today’s acute social challenges.
While every young child needs support, those from at-risk environments are least likely to receive it. Nationally, about 43 percent of babies are born to low-income families. Providing them with early access to quality education, social services and healthcare is both a cost-effective way to encourage success later in life and a boon for the economy, says Nobel Laureate James Heckman of the University of Chicago, an expert in the economics of human development. Short-term costs will be more than offset by later savings in health and social service, criminal justice and incarceration, and increased self-sufficiency, productivity, and tax contributions.
Investment in quality early childhood initiatives is a cornerstone of a productive 21st century economy. For both practical and moral reasons, we must equip children from all segments of the population with the education and skills to be productive members of society.
Seeing this as an ethical issue, our family was inspired to focus our charitable endeavors on early child development in our community of Los Angeles. The mission of our Tikun Olam Foundation — administered by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation) — is to play a local leadership role supporting and positively affecting early childhood development and these later-life outcomes. Experts at The Foundation helped us crystallize our goals, and continue to serve as invaluable resources. Our aim is to have an enduring impact on this issue in Los Angeles, and serve as a roadmap for others, through a multi-prong strategy:
Building Awareness Of Early Childhood Development
A decade ago, our family knew little about the challenges surrounding early childhood development. The general public remains equally uninformed, so we funded a position for a journalist reporting exclusively on this subject at KPCC-FM, a news-oriented National Public Radio affiliate serving Southern California; the station has aired more than 150 stories on early-childhood-related topics.
Promoting Best Practices For Infant-Family Mental Health
A study by the advocacy organization Children Now shows children’s development and learning are closely linked to parental education, income and social support, as well as to caregivers’ confidence in their ability to promote health and learning.
At Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), medical professionals are trained to integrate infant-family mental health practices into clinical care. In its first year, the Stein Tikun Olam Infant-Family Mental Health Initiative trained more than 700 CHLA clinicians and provided mental health services to families of 300 children, including screening by child psychologists for parental stress and depression. The one-year follow-up and return-visit rate was 100 percent, demonstrating how highly parents value caregiving skills.
Another outstanding initiative supported by Tikun Olam Foundation is New Moms Connect, a program of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles now in its 10th year. It assists new moms in the Jewish community by pointing them to help with postpartum depression and other issues that affect one in eight new mothers and their families.
Strengthening Communities Through Grassroots Partnerships
Local programs like the Magnolia Community Initiative (MCI) in Los Angeles bring support and services to populations that need them most. The MCI promotes collaboration between more than 70 social services organizations — including Children’s Bureau of Southern California as a lead provider — and a central Los Angeles neighborhood of 110,000 residents, including 35,000 children.
The Tikun Olam Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation made a collaborative multi-million dollar gift to MCI last year to promote academic success, good health, economic stability and nurturing parenting. This initiative offers a model that can be replicated in other challenged urban centers.
Advocating comprehensive and well-coordinated early childhood policies by elected leaders.
Ensuring that all children can reach their potential requires vision and leadership at the federal, state and local levels, with policies that translate into integrated, effective, community-based services for infants, toddlers, families and caregivers. The 2018 elections give all of us an opportunity to ask candidates for federal and state offices about their vision and strategies for achieving this.
In Jewish tradition, parents and their children are bound together through commanded responsibilities and sacred practices. Our view of tikun olam expands this to apply to all young children, everywhere. Nurturing families and ensuring good health, safe neighborhoods and quality learning for our youngest children should not be seen as a daunting burden, but as an investment in the future of our children and all children.