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This brief compiles the best available data on the characteristics of vulnerable young children in four service systems: Early Head Start (EHS); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); the child welfare (CW) system; and Part C Early Intervention Programs (Part C). Data reveal that the children and families in these systems look fairly similar on some key dimensions, suggesting that policy initiatives to support young children’s development might be informed by distilling common lessons from the systems' different research bases.
This brief focuses on four key service systems engaged in the lives of vulnerable families with very young children: Early Head Start (EHS); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); the child welfare (CW) system; and the Part C Early Intervention Program (Part C) (box 1). This brief compiles the best available data on the characteristics of the young children served by each system. Vulnerable children are defined as those living in families with circumstances that might compromise a child’s healthy development.
Why focus on very young children? A landmark study concludes that nearly all aspects of early human development are shaped by a child’s experiences in its early years (Shonkoff and Phillips 2000). Specifically, neuroscience research has established that the brain develops rapidly during the early years of life, largely forming the trajectory of a child’s future cognitive and emotional development (Shonkoff and Phillips 2000; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2007). Years of research have also demonstrated that the attachments very young children form with caregivers largely shape their later relationships (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child 2004; Bowlby 1969; Ainsworth 1985). More recently, research drawing on evaluation data from early childhood programs documents significant returns to society when investing in disadvantaged children in their early years of life (Heckman 2006).
The early years of a child’s life also represent a uniquely challenging time for families. Parents caring for very young children, with and without means, struggle to nurture their children’s development, maintain connections with the workforce, juggle child care arrangements, secure needed services, and build supportive relationships with family, friends, and the broader community. Families’ efforts to navigate this difficult period can be further challenged by insufficient income, domestic violence, substance abuse, or mental health problems. As a result, vulnerable families with infants and toddlers may come to the attention of or seek support from various public service systems.
Studies of public systems, however, rarely focus on very young children. This brief explores and compiles the existing data on these children from four service systems. Data are compiled on several dimensions: age, race/ethnicity, parental income, parental education, parental employment, receipt of public benefits, family structure, child health, and home environment. It is important to note that the estimates in this brief are derived from the best available published sources. Estimates are often based on data from different years and populations, making exact comparisons difficult. Future research will want to produce similar estimates by year and population. Future analyses should also include other systems with which young children are frequently involved, such as the child care, Medicaid, food stamps, housing, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) systems.
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