Natalie Holmes and Alan Berube
We recently visited King County, Wash., the county in which Seattle sits. On many counts, the region is thriving. But while the city of Seattle grows jobs and incomes, suburban communities to its immediate south continue to grapple with elevated poverty and concentrated disadvantage. The gap between the region’s rich and poor continues to widen, which recent research suggests could hinder the economic mobility of low-income children and families.
Across the country, it’s local governments—counties and municipalities—that provide the bulk of services that affect our daily lives, and especially those of poor families. As cash-strapped local governments are asked to do more with fewer resources, they’re realizing the need to better coordinate and find alternatives to expensive late-stage public health and safety interventions, such as incarceration. At present, nearly three-quarters of King County’s general fund supports the criminal justice system.
The county is attempting to shift its investments toward early-stage intervention through a new initiative, Best Starts for Kids. The three-part initiative would support pregnant women and young children with home health visits and screenings; track whether school-aged children meet “key developmental milestones;” and support communities through place-focused interventions. The goal, according to County Executive Dow Constantine, is to “sever the link between incomes and outcomes—to create a King County where the circumstance of one’s birth no longer defines the course of one’s life.”
Underlying Best Starts for Kids is the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Research from the University of Washington, cited by the initiative, suggests that significant brain development occurs in the first three years of life, and a child’s environment in her first two years can profoundly shape lifelong stress response systems. Poor children start behind, right out of the gate. This inequity ultimately affects all of us: According to Brookings’ Center for Universal Education, healthy development in early childhood is also an essential component of building and sustaining a skilled workforce.
Leaders in the region have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to establishing wraparound services and programs to tackle poverty. The City of Seattle recently passed a universal preschool program, which goes into effect this fall. Earlier this year, King County established a reduced-fare transit program to help make commutes more affordable for low-income workers. And the Road Map Project supports “cradle to college and career” readiness in seven of the region’s highest-need school districts, working collaboratively across suburban jurisdictions and Seattle’s southern neighborhoods.
Best Starts for Kids would complement these and other efforts in the region, and would be among the first of its kind nationally to comprehensively target early childhood development at such a large scale. The programs would be funded through a six-year, $65 million levy, which is headed to the ballot this November. As economic disadvantage increasingly locates outside the historical confines of inner cities, Best Starts represents a promising signal of stronger county leadership to address the root causes of poverty across urban and suburban lines.