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State Early Childhood Policies

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

This is an excerpt from the full report.

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 health care, positive early learning experiences, and nurturing parenting that will support their healthy development and school readiness. For more than 10 years, the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) has reported on state-level policy efforts to promote the well-being of young children and their families, particularly lowincome children, with Map and Track: State Initiatives for Young Children and Families. NCCP continues this tradition with Improving the Odds for Young Children, a multi-faceted project that provides a unique picture of the policy choices states make to promote healthy development and school readiness. Improving the Odds for Young Children tracks policies to:

  • Promote healthy development—access to health care for young children, their parents, and pregnant women; to nutrition programs; and to mental health services and supports.
  • Promote high-quality early care and education—access to high-quality child care, responsive to the special needs of infants and toddlers; and access to prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds.
  • Promote effective parenting—to ensure that parents/mothers have time and skills to build a relationship with their young children, especially infants, while maximizing family resources.

This three-part framework reflects the multiple supports young children need to thrive. Within each area, the policy choices identify key policy steps that states can take to improve the odds for early success. The policy choices are not a complete list of options for policymakers (see Methodology text box). Rather, they are a baseline intended to stimulate a dialogue, both within the states and nationally, about how to make more strategic, coherent investments in young children. State specific profiles showing each state’s policy choices are available on the NCCP web site.

Improving the Odds for Young Children focuses on state-level decisions, but decisions made at the national level shape many of these choices through federal resource allocations and regulations. Changes in federal policies and funding for public health insurance and child care subsidies influence the choices states make. For example, over the past five years, federal funding for the child care subsidy program has been basically flat, making it harder for states to meet the needs of all low-income families. At the same time, federal policies increased work requirements for the poorest families who require cash assistance, which also increased the demand for child care assistance. While Improving the Odds for Young Children does not analyze national policy, it provides important information that can be used by federal policymakers to strengthen the federal commitment to promote healthy early childhood development. (See the National Early Childhood Policy Profile.)

This report highlights some of the key findings from NCCP’s database of state policy choices, which assembles data from multiple sources to provide a unique picture of early childhood policies across the states (see Appendix A for sources referenced in this report). More extensive information is available on the web site of the National Center for Children in Poverty, including:

  • State-by-state profiles of young children and their families, policy choices, trends, and recent developments.
  • Data tables that allow for comparisons across states on each of the policy choices.
  • An explanation of each policy choice, including a summary of the research showing why it is important.

Definition of terms

Young children. All children before their 6th birthday.

Poverty. Household income at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or $17,170 for a family of three in 2007.

Low-income. Household income at or below twice the FPL, or $34,340 for a family of three in 2007.

Note: These numbers are from the federal poverty guidelines issued annually by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


The policy framework for the Improving the Odds for Young Children initiative was created with input from national early childhood development experts and the Birth to Five Policy Alliance. State policy officials representing child care, prekindergarten, and maternal and child health were given the opportunity to review the state profiles for accuracy.

Improving the Odds for Young Children brings together data from multiple sources. Criteria for including the policy choice in the database include:

  • Data is regularly published on all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Research suggests that the policy choice improves the odds for healthy child development and school readiness.
  • The state has flexibility about whether and how to implement the policy, and there is variation among state policy choices.

Limitations of the data include:

  • Inability to answer questions about access, such as the number of young children who are eligible for child care subsidies within each state or the number of children who enter kindergarten without any formal early care experience.
  • Gaps in policy information, particularly related to home visiting and child welfare.
  • Time lags of one or more years behind the current policy picture. Each variable in the state early childhood profiles lists the year the data were collected from the source, and the “Recent Developments” summary on the first page of the individual state profiles highlights any significant changes that occurred after the data were collected.

The Improving the Odds database will be updated as new data become available.