When city government leaders in San Antonio decided to fund a prekindergarten program using sales tax revenues, they made a case that doing so was an economic imperative as a growing city, that investing in the future workforce was about the city’s future prosperity, and that remaining attractive to companies and workers meant having a more educated population. Other compelling factors were the city’s increasing Hispanic population, its high poverty index, urban sprawl, and an underfunded early-education system. To get a sense of the potential impact of early-childhood efforts that take into account these and other characteristics, I spoke to Caridad Araujo, the lead economist in the social protections and health division of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, D.C. She works in poverty-reduction and early-childhood-development programs, designing projects and allocating funds to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The projects usually emerge from policy reforms or enhancements initiated by municipal or state governments, similar to how Pre-K for San Antonio was a government-led effort. In the area of early childhood, her work has focused on improving the quality of services in Latin American countries. We spoke about best practices in launching such efforts, the economic measures used to determine need and eligibility, and the potential long-term impact of such efforts on the population. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

What are the main structural requirements for creating early-childhood support systems?

In the area of early childhood, our projects cover a range of areas of intervention. In early-childhood education, for example, investing in starting childhood services or early-education services or improving their quality. But we are also working a lot, for example, in supporting parenting programs: It could be home visits, it could be group modalities, in order to promote better parenting practices, better quality of interaction at home, more opportunities for social stimulation and learning. We also work through the health sector to incorporate early-childhood messages in the regular health checkup visits.

What have you found to be the most effective methods for financing early-childhood education programs?

I would start by recognizing that there’s no magic bullet on financing. We know that the highest return on investment in early childhood intervention occurs when those investments are targeted at families that are very disadvantaged, and when the actual services provided are very high quality. In terms of priorities, I would imagine that any programs with money that is spent on the children that are facing the biggest range of vulnerabilities and disadvantages are going to see a very high return on investment. The kids are going to benefit greatly from having access to a better quality environment during their first years of life. Providing that kind of care is very expensive ... I think it’s probably an issue of deciding what is ‘disadvantage’ in that community, and what is the status of the population that faces vulnerabilities because of poverty, violence, their background, or other circumstances that threaten the well-being of the family where the child is being raised.

In terms of providing care that has the most long-term impact on the majority of people, is the poverty line the correct measurement for determining who qualifies?

I think that poverty is definitely one key area of vulnerability that affects the quality of the home environment that justifies making that child eligible for high quality early-childhood services. But poverty is not the only criteria. For example, we know that kids who face a lot of stress in their homes are also very vulnerable, and that their early-childhood development might be at risk. That stress might be coming from poverty, but it might be coming from other circumstances: For example, exposure to violence, exposure to neglect—those are other circumstances that are really exposing these kids to a very disadvantaged situation. I think that poverty is a very strong predictor of disadvantage, but there are other areas that also need to be kept in mind that have to do with a broader definition of disadvantage—other factors that may cause stress and might have long-term consequences on that child’s development.  

Have you found any difference in the level of involvement if the family is expected to contribute financially?

We really don’t have hard data for Latin America and the Caribbean in that respect. And in some way, the data we have—which is more qualitative, anecdotal, observational—just doesn’t belie that. In Latin America, families haven’t been seen too much as partners. In the U.S., I understand the involvement you’re thinking about, and why it’s so important, and I agree that it is important. However, in traditional service provision in Latin America and the Caribbean, this hasn’t been a role that has been very much expected of some families. Not that there are enough spaces for families to participate and be involved in their children’s early-childhood education.

In fact, in many communities, the role of families has been that of cheap labor providers or resource providers, in the sense that many of them are asked to volunteer, to do, for example, maintenance activities. In many places, the actual caregivers who look after the children are moms from the community who do it for no pay, or for very little pay without a formal contract, actual salary, or labor relationship. It is a different role that has been asked of families. I totally agree that a stronger family involvement would be desirable, but an involvement that is at a different level, in terms of aligning interests and needs of the children and finding ways to better provide for them, rather than just asking families for ad-hoc contributions where the providers face constraints.

San Antonio has many immigrants from Latin America. What are the cultural differences some families might have to mitigate while integrating a child into this new culture?

Culture is a very important variable that influences our child-rearing practices, our views on children, on what is good for them, on expectations about them. So let’s recognize that we cannot isolate culture from our understanding of early-childhood education and our understanding of childhood programs and policies. While this is not my area of work—this area of immigration to the United States—I can recognize that there might be barriers that families face when integrating into a society. One is the language barrier. When parents are not capable of communicating with the caregivers of their children they might just have a huge gap in communication and knowledge about their kids, what they’re doing in their early-education setting, whether the caregiver is observing any specific needs or challenges in the child. The second area, also related to language—recognizing that kids are growing in a multilingual setting, that they’re probably hearing another language at home other than the one they’re hearing at school. The key is how to best use this as a positive benefit these children have in their stimulation and not as a limitation, as something they should be ashamed of.

I think an area where there are no cultural barriers is that all parents everywhere in the world want the best for their kids. So building those bridges to communicate to parents how to provide the best opportunities—even parents who are probably facing constraints in their day-to-day lives because of other disadvantages, families facing economic problems or employment issues, because they really have a range of vulnerabilities. How to best support those families to care for their children and to offer them a high-quality environment at home? In some ways it is an issue that goes beyond the “care” sense of provider; it is a broader social policy, social protection issue, providing them with ultimate necessary support, so that that educational setting can actually build synergy for their children’s development. If a parent is not well in terms of her mental health, if there is violence in the home, if there is stress because of poverty or lack of employment, it is going to be very difficulty for that parent to also have high-quality interactions with her young child. So keeping an eye on all of those needs of immigrant families is important in terms of helping them be better parents and offering their children a healthier start in life.

What’s the role of families in the interventions you help create?

There are many areas where we can work with families to provide them with what they need to raise a child to his or her potential. Some families might lack resources to provide for their children. Through anti-poverty programs we can transfer money or specific goods that poor families might need to better provide for the needs of their children. Families might also lack knowledge on how best to raise a child. That’s something a lot of the parenting programs seek to provide, that knowledge to empower parents on the crucial importance of their role in their children’s development. A lot of adults are not aware of how important that role is—even when kids are at a very young age—how responsive they are to adult interactions, how much they need that give-and-return, that permanent interaction, that baby talk, for their development and for their brain’s development. Just building that awareness, providing parents with tools on how to interact with their infants and toddlers, how to play with them, how to create learning opportunities. That’s a key area to support families in their role.