Despite its wealth, Silicon Valley faces challenges ensuring that its children are getting a strong foundation in early learning. Specifically, we found that low-income children in Silicon Valley—as in the United States as a whole—are much less likely to be enrolled in preschool than their higher-income peers.
In Silicon Valley, 73 percent of low-income children are not enrolled in preschool at age 3, compared with 48 percent of 3-year-olds who are not low-income. A similar gap exists in the national numbers, with 75 percent of low-income 3-year-olds not enrolled compared with only 57 percent of their higher-income peers. At age 4, the gap shrinks but still persists both at the national level and for Silicon Valley.
To better understand the barriers to early education, we explored the enrollment patterns of low-income children in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties—which make up Silicon Valley—and found several important family and child characteristics that may affect access to and participation in preschool.
- Nearly three-quarters of all low-income Silicon Valley children are children of immigrants, meaning that at least one of their parents was born outside of the United States and its territories. In the United States as a whole, children of immigrants make up about one third of all low-income children.
- While most low-income children in Silicon Valley (97 percent) are US citizens, almost half (47 percent) have non-citizen parents who may or may not have legal status to reside in the United States. This is higher than in the United States overall, where only 18 percent of low-income children have non-citizen parents. Therefore, while the majority of low-income children will be legally eligible for programs and services, their non-citizen parents may find it more challenging to access public services and institutions. While some publicly funded early education programs are available to children regardless of their parents’ documentation status, parents who do not have legal documents may be fearful of interacting with public agencies. Furthermore, even those parents who are here legally may not know what services exist or how to access them, or they may have undocumented family members they feel they need to protect by avoiding public agencies.
- Many low-income children in Silicon Valley come from families that face language barriers: 60 percent have at least one parent with limited English proficiency (LEP), meaning that they report speaking a language other than English at home and that they speak English less than “very well.” This share is much higher than at the national level where only 24 percent of low-income children have LEP parents. Language and linguistic isolation is therefore likely a major barrier for many of these low-income families.
- While Spanish is the most common language spoken at home for low-income children with LEP parents in Silicon Valley, a significant share—24 percent—speak languages other than Spanish. There is substantial diversity within this group, though most of the populations are relatively small in number.
Our study reveals some important characteristics of low-income children that can help Silicon Valley service providers increase preschool access and enrollment. The experience in Silicon Valley also offers important lessons for other communities in the United States, particularly because the area has a high share of children of immigrants, a growing population in other areas as well.
To ensure that all low-income children receive early childhood education, service providers will increasingly have to understand what the population of low-income children looks like at the local level. These kinds of local analyses allow providers and stakeholders to better address the barriers facing low-income children, particularly children of immigrants.