Health Equity Research Webcast argues for early childhood education as weapon against poverty

June 10, 2013
A panel of experts, gathered for the 19th annual National Health Equity Research Webcast on June 4, emphasized the role of comprehensive early childhood education programs in combating the effects of poverty. The program brought together a live audience on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and viewers from around the world to participate in a dialogue that has captured national attention since February, when President Obama called for universal preschool access.
Audience members await the start of the National Health Equity Research Webcast on June 4.

Audience members await the start of the National Health Equity Research Webcast on June 4.

“Poverty detracts from resources used to maintain health, while poor health detracts from the educational and employment paths to income mobility,'” said Samuel L. Odom, PhD, quoting a national report during his opening address.

Odom, who directs UNC’s Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute, identified developmental differences between children born into poverty and those not, a gap that appears at nine months and widens across early childhood. He also cited FPG’s decades-long Abecedarian Study, which has shown that enriched early educational environments can help children to surmount the disadvantages of poverty.
“This study has shown the cost-effectiveness of providing early developmental care and health care,” Odom said. “They go hand in hand.”
Benefits to Abecedarian Study participants at age 21 included higher reading and math test scores, more years of education, greater likelihood of being enrolled in college and less likelihood of being a teen parent. At age 30, they were more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree and a job, and to have delayed parenthood, among other positive differences from their peers.
“We took the research and applied it to a community environment,” said Portia R. Kennel, MSW, executive director of the nationwide Educare Learning Network and conference panelist, citing the influence of the Abecedarian findings and other research on Educare’s vision. The Educare Learning Network’s 17 schools use public and private funding to provide early intervention, and studies have shown Educare’s effectiveness in preparing children from families in poverty to be as ready for kindergarten as their peers.
“Investing in early childhood is a poverty intervention,” Kennel said. “Prevention and promotion yield long-term dividends.”
“You cannot separate poverty from outcomes for children and their families,” agreed Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, panelist and director of the national Office of Head Start, which serves more than one million 3- to 5-year-olds from low-income families. According to Fuentes, the difference in cognitive development by age two between children from low-income families and their peers is significant when no intervention occurs. “The earliest years are when it really matters,” Fuentes said.
Sarah L. Kastelic, PhD, deputy director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, reported in her presentation that nearly one-third of the American Indian and Alaska Native populations live in poverty. According to Kastelic, adverse childhood experiences, including abuse and neglect, are five times more likely in native populations.
“Can we afford not to invest in early childhood education?” asked Educare’s Kennel, who added that the debate about early childhood education had entered a critical period after the President’s proposal for universal preschool programs.
Dr. Vic Schoenbach

Dr. Vic Schoenbach

“Expanding quality preschool programs will make us all a little better off and make some people a lot better off,” said Victor J. Schoenbach, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and director of the Minority Health Project. “If the latter group were large political donors, quality preschool would be widely available.”

The Gillings School, UNC Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and FPG were among the 14 financial and 4 in-kind contributors supporting the webcast.
Khari M. Garvin, director of the NC Head Start-State Collaboration Office, moderated.
The webcast, “Early Childhood Development: Investing in Our Children and Our Future,” is available online.


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or