The Hamilton Project at Brookings

Section 1: Promoting Early Childhood Development

  Proposal Title, Author(s) Proposal Description
1. Expanding Preschool Access for Disadvantaged Children, Elizabeth U. Cascio and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach Proposes a framework calling for the establishment of a high-quality program in areas where preschool programs do not exist, improved preschool quality in those states and localities with subpar programs, and expanded access in areas where high-quality programs already exist.
2. Addressing the Parenting Divide to Promote Early Childhood Development for Disadvantaged Children, Ariel Kalil Proposes a new federal task force supporting the collection of evidence to develop more-effective parenting interventions and to promote improved child development in early years.
3. Reducing Unintended Pregnancies for Low-Income Women, Isabel Sawhill and Joanna Venator Proposes to combat unintended pregnancies through a social marketing campaign to encourage more young women to use long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs).
Download All The Proposals or the Highlights Below:

Expanding Preschool Access for Disadvantaged Children
Elizabeth U. Cascio (Dartmouth College) and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach (Northwestern University)

Poverty has little association with the cognitive abilities of nine-month-old children. By the start of kindergarten, however, not only do poor children perform significantly worse on tests of cognitive ability than children from higher-income families, but teachers also report that these children have much more difficulty paying attention and exhibit more behavioral problems. The poverty gap in school readiness appears to be growing as income inequality widens.

One popular proposal to narrow this gap is to expand formal educational opportunities to poor children under the age of five. Stark gaps in preschool participation by family socioeconomic status mirror the achievement gaps described above. The most recent data available show that only about 50 percent of four-year-old children in families in the lowest income quintile are enrolled in preschool. Among families in the top income quintile, on the other hand, the preschool enrollment rate of four-year-olds is considerably higher, at 76 percent. Nearly all (88 percent) of preschool participants in the lowest-income families are enrolled in public programs.

This policy memo is directed primarily toward state and local policymakers who want to strengthen the public preschool options in their area while considering budgetary trade-offs.


As the economic destinies of affluent and poor American families have diverged, so too has the educational performance of the children in these families. Socioeconomic gaps in children’s cognition and behavior open up early in life and remain largely constant through the school years. However, rising inequality in income is not the sole cause of the divergence in children’s achievement and behavior. Parents do more than spend money on children’s development—they also promote child development by spending time with their children in cognitively enriching activities and by providing emotional support and consistent discipline. The “parenting divide” between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children is large and appears to be growing over time along these dimensions.

To bridge the parenting divide and improve the life chances of economically disadvantaged young children, I propose that the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the Department of Health and Human Services be tasked with building the knowledge base to create an Early Years Family Policy to promote more-effective parenting and child development in low-income families, especially for children from birth to age five.


Reducing Unintended Pregnancies for Low-Income Women
Isabel Sawhill and Joanna Venator (Brookings Institution)

Children born to young, unmarried mothers in the United States face an elevated risk of poverty. More than half of births last year to women under the age of thirty were outside of marriage. In 2012, single mothers headed nearly 25 percent of families, compared to 13 percent in 1970. In that same year, 47 percent of children living in single-mother families lived below the federal poverty level, more than four times the 11 percent poverty rate for children living with their married parents. Children of single mothers fare less well in school and in life than children of married parents. For these reasons, addressing the situation into which children are born needs to be a key component in our nation’s fight against poverty.

To that end, we propose a social marketing campaign designed to improve knowledge and attitudes about ways to prevent unintended pregnancies so that women can make better-informed decisions. Specifically, we propose launching a social marketing campaign to educate women about the safety, effectiveness, and convenience of long-acting reversible contraceptives, or LARCs. These state-run campaigns would target the population of women most vulnerable to births outside of marriage: low-income women between the ages of fifteen and thirty.