Our business and political leaders talk a lot about the future of the Los Angeles area – especially the outlook for livability, economic growth, job opportunities and a skilled work force. Some might find it surprising to learn that underlying these challenges is an unexpected common denominator: Early childhood development.

How we nurture children in their first three years has a huge impact on their future — and the future of our society.

When it comes to early childhood development, prenatal to age three is the new pre-K and kindergarten. 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. About 62 percent of babies in California are born to low-income families. Providing them with early access to quality education, social services and healthcare is not only a cost-effective way to encourage success later in life, it’s also a boon for the economy, says Prof. James Heckman of the University of Chicago, a Nobel Laureate and 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.

In short, investment in quality early childhood initiatives will lead to a productive 21st century economy. Baby Boomers are retiring at a time when children are just 21 percent of the state’s population, down from 33 percent in 1970. It is essential for our economy that children from all segments of society acquire the education and skills they need to be productive members of society.

Our family’s Tikun Olam Foundation, administered by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, is principally focused on early childhood development. Experts at the foundation helped us crystallize our goals over a number of years, and remain an invaluable resource. Our aim is to have an enduring impact on 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, the local National Public Radio affiliate; 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.

Strengthening communities through grassroots partnerships. Programs like the Magnolia Community Initiative (MCI) 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 effective 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 California gubernatorial election, specifically, gives all of us an opportunity to ask candidates about their vision and strategies for achieving this.

Nurturing families and ensuring good health, safe neighborhoods and quality learning for our youngest children is a challenge. But it is an investment that will pay off in a better future for us, our children and grandchildren.

Marilyn Stein is an educator and past chair of the Children’s Bureau of Southern California; Eugene Stein retired as vice chair of Capital Research Strategies, a unit of downtown-based global investment-management firm Capital Group Companies.

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