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State Early Childhood Policies
Executive Summary

Authors: Helene Stebbins and Jane Knitzer
Publication Date: June 2007

Executive Summary

Early childhood is a time of great opportunity. For young children, it is a time when they will learn to walk and talk and build the foundations for future development. For policymakers, it is a time to improve the odds that young children receive the basic supports and opportunities that will promote their healthy development and school readiness. Compelling research supports the lifelong importance of early childhood development, and hard economic evidence shows that smart investments in early childhood yield long-term gains. The research is clear, and yet many state policies ignore what we know about healthy early childhood development.

View the National Profile

See the National Early Childhood Policy Profile for a summary of the policy choices of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Individual state policies are also available.

Good health, positive early learning experiences, and nurturing families who are economically secure form the three-legged stool of positive early childhood development. All three are necessary to provide a supportive base for future growth. Improving the Odds for Young Children uses this three-part framework to identify key policy steps that states can take to improve the odds for children’s early success in school and in life. The policy choices are not a complete list of options for policymakers. They are a baseline intended to stimulate dialogue, both within the states and nationally, about how to make more strategic, coherent investments in young children.

Key Findings

  • Health and Nutrition. A majority—80 percent of states—provide access to public health insurance for young children in low-income families, but many children who are eligible for Medicaid are not receiving recommended dental and health screenings that are consistent with pediatric practice and can prevent or reduce future delays. In only four states do more than 80 percent of children ages 3 to 5 receive an annual health screening.
  • Early Care and Education. Access to state-funded prekindergarten is growing, but access to high-quality child care is still inadequate, and state child care licensing requirements are not promoting nurturing, high-quality care. Only eight states meet recommended child care licensing standards for toddlers, and only 14 states meet them for 4-year-old children. Many low-income young children are not enrolled in any of the major early childhood programs, and access to services for infants and toddlers is especially limited.
  • Parenting and Economic Supports. State efforts to promote family economic security are uneven. While more than half the states address the inadequacy of the minimum wage, less than half exempt a family of three from personal income tax when family income is below the federal poverty level (FPL). Most low-income parents are not eligible for public health insurance, and very few parents can afford to stay home with their newborn and establish a strong, nurturing relationship. Only six states provide paid maternity leave.


The following four recommendations can guide policymakers, advocates, and researchers in future efforts to improve the odds of success for our youngest citizens.

  • Make policy choices that focus on the whole child. Good health, positive early learning experiences, and nurturing families are the three essential elements of healthy early childhood development. Over the past five years, almost every state has sustained or increased access to health care, but half of the states have decreased eligibility for child care subsidies. Families with young children need multiple supports, and strong policies in one area (for example, health care) can be undermined by weak policies in another (such as child care).
  • Combine early childhood investments with investments in family economic security. More than 10 million children, 42 percent of all children under age 6, live in low-income families and are especially vulnerable for poor school outcomes and poor health. “Low income” is defined as family income below twice the official federal poverty level or $34,340 for a family of three in 2007. Research shows that families need at least this much to meet their basic needs.1 Public policies that promote family economic security can help parents help their children.
  • Increase access to critical supports and services. In some states, income eligibility for health insurance or child care subsidies is half of what it is in other states. A young child in New Jersey has access to public health insurance while a child from North Dakota in a family with half the income does not. Federal and state policies can help level the playing field so children have access to basic supports and services regardless of where they are born.
  • Invest in infants and toddlers. The earliest relationships and experiences shape children’s brain development, which in turn affects the behavior needed to succeed in school and in life. State policies can help infants and toddlers get the start they need when these policies both promote stable, nurturing relationships (with parents and child care providers) and are intensive enough to help parents address their own health and mental health challenges.

It is in America’s interest to change the policy picture for young children, not just across the states, but with a new strategic federal commitment that builds on real knowledge and smart investments. The Improving the Odds for Young Children project can inform policy decisions with:

  • State and national profiles of early childhood policy choices and demographic information
  • Data tables that allow for comparisons across states on each policy choice
  • A national report summarizing the research base for policies that promote early childhood development and key findings from the state profiles


1. National Center for Children in Poverty, Family Resource Simulator; and Berstein, J.; Brocht, C.; & Spade-Aguilar, M. (2000). How much is enough? Basic family budgets for working families. Washington,DC: Economic Policy Institute.