Proceedings of a Workshop
Measuring the Opportunity Gap for Children from Birth to Age Eight and Understanding Barriers to Access
Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief
The Committee on Exploring the Opportunity Gap for Young Children from Birth to Age Eight is conducting a consensus study on the causes and consequences of the opportunity gap, which generally refers to “the unequal or inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities” on the basis of factors such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, community wealth, geography, or familial situations.1 These gaps can contribute to or perpetuate inequities in well-being across groups of young children in a number of outcome domains. The charge to the committee is to review evidence on the effect of the opportunity gap on young children; describe factors related to family, community, and school that promote, mitigate, or diminish opportunities and achievement; describe the costs and potential benefits of investing in strategies, interventions, and policies; and review evidence on promising policies, practices, and interventions to address the opportunity gap.2
As part of its work, the committee held a virtual public information-gathering workshop on May 24, 2021. The purpose of the workshop was to inform the committee in its work, which will also draw on other public information-gathering sessions, peer-reviewed research, and commissioned papers from subject-matter experts, as well as the expertise of its members.
This document summarizes the discussions at the sessions, which were divided into two major topics: (1) measuring the opportunity gap and (2) factors that impede uptake of benefit programs and barriers to accessing opportunities. Each session featured presentations from two subject-matter experts.
SESSION 1: MEASURING THE OPPORTUNITY GAP
THE IMPORTANCE OF INVESTMENTS IN EARLY EDUCATION
Rucker C. Johnson (University of California, Berkeley) focused his presentation on the importance of the early developmental years for school readiness and future development and how investments in early development help narrow the opportunity gap. Although achievement gaps and opportunity gaps are
2 For more information, see the project website, https://www.nationalacademies.org/our-work/exploring-the-opportunity-gap-for-youngchildren-from-birth-to-age-eight.
large along race and class lines, begin as early as kindergarten, and are apparent by third grade, he stressed that opportunity gaps precede achievement gaps. The achievement gap is the “symptom”; the opportunity gap is the “disease.”
Johnson’s presentation then covered how early investment in childhood education benefits children’s cognitive and social development and their school readiness and how transitional kindergarten sustains pre-K investments.
Cognitive and Social Development
Johnson began by noting the importance of early brain development as a critical and sensitive period for children. Children’s ability to learn may be influenced by the neural wiring that takes place in their earliest years, he said. “The first 3 years of life, our brains are developing at an astonishing speed, as the neuroscience literature has documented, forming about 1 million new neural connections each second.”
Nurturing and interpersonal interactions and playdates in the preschool years can release a cascade of neurotransmitter development and synapse growth in young developing brains. Furthermore, Johnson said, nurturing and interpersonal interactions in early life turn on a light bulb of learning that stimulates social competency and executive function, while they also help to regulate emotions and impulse control. Johnson noted that these activities are not only an investment in knowledge, but also an investment in cognitive ability, in social and emotional development, and in competency to acquire future knowledge.
“When we talk about school readiness, these [activities] are something that specifically . . . can [have] a significant impact,” Johnson said. Early educational development is an important aspect of school readiness because it predicts third-grade achievement across five areas of development: (1) physical health and well-being, (2) emotional health and maturity, (3) social knowledge and competence, (4) language development, and (5) thinking and communication skills. For example, investments in early childhood education, such as the Head Start programs, provide improved school readiness. State pre-K program investments have significantly increased over the past two decades, he said, which has been beneficial for school readiness. Pre-K enrollment has significantly increased in 3-to 4-year-old children at a national level. Noting that the evaluation of efficacy of pre-K programs has shown somewhat mixed results, Johnson asserted that the heterogeneous effect on subsequent student trajectories is due to “fade out.” This fade out is not a reflection of the quality of the pre-K investments, he said, but rather the effect of children’s subsequent attendance at poorly funded elementary school systems after receiving quality pre-K. The early gains acquired from having access to quality pre-K may dissipate rapidly.
Johnson proposed areas that should be targeted in school funding reform:
When I think school funding reform (pre-K through K–12), I’m talking about spending that affects reductions in class size, increases in teacher salary, reductions in teacher turnover, and more access to guidance counselors and health services. Those are the key and underlying pathways to which we can document links to subsequent boosts of student learning trajectories.
In discussing transitional kindergarten, Johnson’s presentation highlighted his research on a transitional kindergarten program piloted in California as an effort to narrow the opportunity gap. Using University of California student-level data for all cohorts born since 2000 and followed to the present, Johnson’s team linked the student and financial data and then analyzed the data alongside key school reform policies. One of those reforms has been transitional kindergarten, which was designed to be a type of universal pre-K and a bridge from pre-K to kindergarten. Transitional kindergarten eligibility is determined by the student’s birthday during the year the student turns 5 years old, so that
children whose ages differ by only 1–2 months are either eligible or not eligible for transitional kindergarten. Johnson summarized the preliminary data showing significant improvement in academic achievement, both in reading and mathematics, for students who participated in transitional kindergarten. Children from low-income families, who otherwise would not necessarily have access to quality pre-K environments, experienced the most dramatic improvement in academic achievement through attending transitional kindergarten.
During the same time as the pilot transitional kindergarten program, California enacted the Local Control Funding Formula to increase state support of public K–12 schools, providing an $18 billion commitment over 8 years. The funding formula is based on student need (such as being eligible for free or reduced lunch, being homeless, being in foster care), and not on districts’ property wealth. In his research, Johnson said: “And what we do is use the funding formula changes that are independent of family background and other changes to isolate the role that the school spending increases played in boosting or changing student learning trajectories.” He then reported on the results of the analysis:
In places that were low income, there was about a $1,000 increase in funding, by year 3, relative to otherwise similar places that were more affluent areas and were not eligible for this significant funding increase over above common time trends. When we’ve looked at the effects of that on third-grade math achievement, the same places that got a $1,000 increase . . . saw a dose response increase in their math achievement that was both a function of the duration of exposure to that increased funding, as well as whether they were in a district that had the larger dose of funding increase. The same low-income child that was in a more affluent place that didn’t see this change, did not see those kinds of improvements in academic achievement. And we see the same patterns in reading.
Johnson also noted that the pattern is the same in both mathematics and reading and is about the same as about 9–12 months of learning gains, over and above the typical gain in a typical academic year.
Johnson concluded his presentation by highlighting the impact of monetarily investing in transitional kindergarten on future educational outcomes. “We are able to document the per pupil spending impacts of a $1,000 increase in per pupil spending from first grade, second grade, and third grade. On third-grade reading achievement, we’re able to document the school-specific funding effect for every school in California. And we show that impact is large.” Notably, he said, for every $1,000 increase in per pupil spending, that is when preceded by access to transitional kindergarten, the effect is roughly double in comparison with per pupil spending that is not preceded by access to transitional kindergarten.
KEY DOMAINS OF EARLY LIFE HEALTH
Janet Currie (Princeton University) addressed three key domains of early-life health that affect large numbers of children: (1) health at birth, (2) environmental exposures, and (3) child maltreatment. “They are all things that have been shown to affect many aspects of a child’s future life,” she noted, and she emphasized that these three factors not only affect the opportunity gap, they are also amenable to public policy.
Health at Birth
Health at birth reflects the prenatal environment and is determined, in part, by birthweight. Currie presented data from her research that analyzed birthweights of infants, attained from birth certificates across 36 states, born to specific groups of mothers: see Figure 1. The groups of mothers were compared in four ways across race, education, and marital status: (1) African Americans and Whites, (2) Whites with less than a high school education and college-educated Whites, (3) single Whites and married Whites, and (4) college-educated Whites and African Americans with less than a high school education. The data show that, in comparison with White, college-educated, married women, low birthweights are more prevalent among African Americans, Whites with less than a high school edu-
cation, single Whites, and African Americans with less than a high school education. Analyzing health at birth is important, Currie said, “because there are many studies now linking birthweight to adult outcomes, such as completed education, child and adult health, and even future earnings.”
“Importantly, this is something that we know how to do something about,” she added. One program that has been widely shown to be effective in preventing low birthweight is the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). One study in South Carolina found that prenatal WIC participation was associated with reductions in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other childhood mental health disorders. The effects of prenatal WIC participation were largest for Black children, who were the most disadvantaged in the study. These programs close gaps, Currie noted, and they can be the most effective for the most disadvantaged children.
Research data show that health at birth and health in early childhood can be improved by expanding health insurance, Currie noted:
Health insurance for low-income women and children was greatly expanded in the late 80s and early 90s, and the children who were born in those cohorts are now 20 to 30 years old. So those cohorts can be followed and compared to slightly older cohorts who did not have access to health insurance. And when you do that, you see large effects on a wide range of outcomes.
Currie also discussed a study conducted by Sarah Miller and Laura Wary:
[I]t brings together a lot of different outcomes in the same study. They find improvements in the Kessler index of mental health [a measure of psychological distress], decreases in participation in SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], increases in the probability that the child eventually attended college, increases in income, and big improvements in adult health, as measured by reductions in hospital visits and reductions in chronic conditions. Again, you can see that these effects are much more prevalent for children of poor parents than for everyone, and so this program definitely ended up narrowing gaps.
Differences in pollution exposure and the outcomes related to these exposures can both reflect and create opportunity gaps, Currie said. Disadvantaged mothers and children are more likely to live near
busy roads, superfund sites, and industrial plants that emit toxic chemicals, all of which have been shown to have negative effects on both health at birth and children’s future health. Currie shared data showing the probability, by race, of a pregnant woman living within 1.25 miles of an area with toxic release. These data were collected across five states (Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas) and focused on five groups: all White women, college-educated White women, Black women, Black women with less than a high school education, and Hispanic women. Although the baseline for all groups is high, she noted, the probability is much higher for Black mothers and higher still for Black mothers with less than high school education.
Currie presented additional data related to exposure to airborne particulate matter: see Figure 2. “What this figure is showing is that the White population is fairly evenly distributed from least polluted to most polluted places, with some overrepresentation in the least polluted places. But the Black population is substantially overrepresented in the most polluted places.” And she noted:
Again, this is something that we know how to do something about, and if you look at the impact of Clean Air Act standards, and tightening those standards, you see that those impacts are highest in the most polluted places—and also they are higher systematically for Black people than for White people. That is because, even within a county, Black people are more exposed to pollution than White people.
Environmental exposure also occurs through lead poisoning, and it often affects very young children. Using data on preschoolers in Rhode Island, Currie showed preschool students’ blood lead levels in two cohorts who were born before and after the state’s lead remediation program. Currie explained that in the cohort born in 1998, before the program, the Black children have a higher distribution of blood levels than the White children and have a much higher incidence of having very high lead levels (more than 10 micrograms per deciliter). In the cohort born in 2004, the distributions for White and Black children are much more similar. Rhode Island’s lead remediation program also positively affected third-grade reading scores, especially in Black children. In addition, reading scores improved in the Black children after the program, while White children, who were less affected by the lead remediation, maintained stable reading scores.
Currie noted that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in seven children were affected by maltreatment in 2019; 1,840 children died as a result of maltreatment that year. “Although it’s controversial to say, it does seem that poor children experience more abuse and neglect than nonpoor children, so this is something that definitely widens existing gaps,” she said. Currie added that the total lifetime economic burden associated with child maltreatment, in terms of worse outcomes, lower educational attainment, lower probability of employment, and high disability rates, was estimated to be about $428 billion in 2015. Currie explained, “This is comparable to the effects of other large public health programs that get more attention, like stroke and diabetes,” and she emphasized: “Again, this is something that we know how to do something about.”
Currie provided an example from data analyzing the outcomes of the Nurse Family Partnership Program in Elmira, New York, and Memphis, Tennessee. This intervention program was shown to reduce verified incidences of abuse and reduce hospitalizations for injuries in young children. In summarizing her presentation, she reiterated that childhood health is a foundation for success in life. Opportunity gaps lead to health deficits, which, in turn, help to perpetuate these gaps. In closing, she said: “We know how to address and ameliorate many of these problems, which gives us an even greater responsibility to do so.”
SESSION 2: BARRIERS TO ACCESSING BENEFIT PROGRAMS
Pamela Herd (Georgetown University) addressed access to programs and opportunities in terms of administrative burden and discussed how to reduce it. She focused on two major social and behavioral costs of administrative burden: learning costs and compliance costs. These costs are the result of negative experiences associated with people’s attempts to access government services or benefits. As a result, many people who need government benefits for children do not access them. Herd noted that take-up rates can be as low as 30 to 40 percent and as high as 80 percent, but she said that an 80 percent take-up rate is not good enough: “It’s not so great for us for the long term when people don’t have good experiences.”
In terms of administrative burden, Herd defined the learning cost as the process by which one engages in the search process to collect information about public services and matching the services’ relevance to one’s need. As an example, Herd discussed the learning costs associated with social welfare programs provided through the tax system.
Some of our largest income support programs for low-income families are delivered by the IRS [Internal Revenue Service], which creates some advantages, but also some challenges. . . . We had this huge expansion of the child tax credits this year. It’s reaching very low-income families that it didn’t reach before. And the estimates are that it could cut child poverty in half. . . . The problem is that the people who need this the most, and really benefited from the largest expansion of it, are also people who don’t file tax returns.
Herd discussed a project of the California Policy Lab that matched administrative data on social welfare beneficiaries in California to tax record data. The data showed that about 20 percent of families in the social welfare system were not accessing student stimulus benefits. Herd said that part of the issue is that the IRS is not a social agency. She suggested that investing in outreach has the potential to reduce learning costs and that outreach can be handled by third parties, such as nonprofit organizations that help people enroll in government services and benefits. Herd acknowledged, however, that nonprofit organizations may not have sufficient resources to meet the demand for assistance in enrolling in these programs, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Herd also noted that better data would help determine who is eligible for government services and who is not getting those services. Although the IRS and Social Security Administration coordinate to some extent, with good data sharing they could probably identify a significant number of people who are eligible but are not filing tax returns.
Herd defined compliance costs as the costs of following administrative rules and requirements. Compliance costs include things, such as forms, documentation, and the frequency of recertification, as well as the amount of money and time people spend on these processes. She said the application process is an intuitive target to improve in order to reduce compliance costs, and noted that her team is currently collaborating with Code for America3 to evaluate the impact of reducing the time for the application process from an hour to 10 minutes in Minnesota.
Herd also identified areas in which the financial costs of compliance could be reduced—for example, assets tests. “They are difficult to understand . . . and [people] can’t get documentation because of how financial service providers provide it.” Allowing for self-attestation would reduce the compliance cost of assets tests. She also expressed support for program linkages in order to reduce compliance costs, as well as automation of recertification processes.
[R]ecertification processes are a big part of where people fall through these gaps. Very specifically, they fall through the gaps in large numbers. Thirty to 50 percent of those folks were still eligible. It’s just they turned off, probably in large part, because of the challenges they had in the recertification process. We can fix that by reducing the gaps between recertification, as well as automating recertification.
Herd also said that through intensive support for complicated programs, compliance costs can be reduced: “Navigators, social workers; this is part of that outreach package. People need hands-on assistance . . . You really need to walk people through some of these really complicated programs.”
Herd concluded her presentation with a brief discussion of psychological costs—how people feel and respond under chronic stress due to administrative burden. Administrative burden may induce feelings such as stress, frustration, and anger, which can lead to health consequences, which in turn could contribute to health disparities.
ADMINISTRATIVE BURDEN IN WIC AND SNAP
Carolyn Barnes (Duke University) focused her presentation on the administrative burden in the SNAP and WIC programs during COVID-19. Her presentation focused on four key interconnected themes to illustrate the importance of quality of services and access to information: (1) barriers to SNAP and WIC pre-COVID-19, (2) policy changes in response to COVID-19; (3) WIC experiences during COVID-19, and (4) SNAP learning costs.
Barriers to SNAP and WIC Pre-COVID-19
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, SNAP and WIC were integral to reducing food insecurity for low-income families, though there were barriers to access. For example, even though WIC has demonstrably improved maternal and child health outcomes, only 54 percent of eligible families nationwide are using the WIC program. SNAP has had an 85 percent coverage rate, but there are issues with churn. Furthermore, Barnes noted, coverage rates do not take into account how long it takes for people to receive SNAP benefits. “Before COVID,” she said, “we had these psychological and compliance costs with both programs. There’s variation in the quality of customer service that folks receive. . . . Folks wanted reminders of appointments, or they express concerns about long wait times both at SNAP and WIC.” Barnes also mentioned that there is a transportation barrier in rural communities, such as in North Carolina where she has worked. Barnes noted that people report negative interactions with SNAP administrators, but positive, socially supportive interactions with WIC program staff.
The administrative burden of these programs create barriers, such as what she characterized as learning costs and redemption costs. As a learning cost, people may not know about the programs, the programs’ benefits and services, or how to access benefits and services. Barnes explained: “WIC is delivered through the public health system and not through social services. There’s a distinction there. There’s a complication there.” Given that people do not know those systems well, better outreach for both programs would reduce those barriers.
Barnes described the concept of redemption costs, which she has been developing—the challenges of actually learning how to use the available benefits. “Redemption costs emerge when you have this market-based way of delivering services, where there’s two points of service delivery,” she said. One point of entry starts with the initial bureaucratic encounter when applying for benefits. The second point of entry occurs when recipients try to use their voucher (in the case of WIC) at a retailer or try to see a doctor (in the case of Medicaid). There is a learning curve in how to use these services.
COVID-19 POLICY CHANGES
Barnes explained that COVID-19 and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act have transformed the nutrition assistance safety net. With WIC, appointments became remote, and people could self-report their information. Barnes noted that WIC has a very narrow selection of food that is eligible for use. The CARES Act expanded food choices to deal with the food shortages that were prevalent early in the pandemic, and Barnes explained how introducing food flexibility has allowed people to substitute items, such as sizes of breads and juices, and purchase milk with higher percentages of fat than 1 percent. With SNAP, interviews became remote, people were allowed to self-report income information, and recertification deadlines were extended by 6 months. These changes have reduced compliance costs. Additionally, emergency allotments have maximized benefits for households that were not receiving maximum benefits, and time limits on work requirements have been waived. Occurring alongside the CARES Act, policy changes have allowed recipients to purchase products online with their pandemic using the electronic benefits transfer (EBT) program.
WIC COVID-19 Experiences
COVID-19 policy changes have shaped administrative burden for SNAP and WIC beneficiaries. Barnes shared her team’s multicounty study in partnership with North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, which analyzes SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid participation. They started doing the interviews in 2020 and conducted 186 in-depth phone interviews with WIC and SNAP participants across six counties. WIC participants reported that remote appointments were much more convenient than having to take their kids down to an office: 80 percent of WIC participants reported positive evaluations with remote appointments. Barnes also noted, however, that there are issues with learning costs, in part because most of the WIC participants were unaware of the new WIC policy changes that were designed to make redemption easier. Only 27 percent of all the WIC participants they interviewed were aware of the food flexibilities. Furthermore, redemption costs have persisted, despite the addition of food flexibilities. Most WIC participants are still reporting challenges to purchase WIC-approved foods. People are unaware of these major changes that were designed to make their experience less burdensome. Barnes noted that her team’s interviews were informing people about these policy changes. When we asked if they had heard of, and benefited from, the WIC food flexibilities, some responded:
- “I didn’t even know. What do you mean changes? I didn’t even know about that.”
- Interviewer: “Did your WIC worker tell you anything about the process of having fewer food restrictions now because of COVID?” Interviewee: “No. No, she didn’t. That’s good to know. Thank you. I wish she did. Are there fewer restrictions?”
- “They ain’t said nothing. I didn’t see none of that.”
SNAP Learning and Psychological Costs
Barnes reported on the learning and psychological costs associated with SNAP. Her team found that most of the SNAP participants that were interviewed were unaware of the policy changes: only 25 percent were aware of deadline changes, only 20 percent were aware of the maximum benefits, and only 33 percent were aware of the online purchasing option. Barnes noted other sources of information for recipients. For example, media coverage and school systems were important sources of information for people to learn about access and changes to the EBT program.
Finally, Barnes shared how psychological costs increased for SNAP applications. Despite the move to telework, workers were not more accessible to applicants: “60 percent of our sample reported negative interactions with SNAP workers that are housed in the Department of Social Services. The chief complaint is difficulty contacting workers.” This complaint was most prevalent in the urban counties, she said, where 75 percent of respondents report difficulties, although difficulties were also reported in suburban counties. Examples of responses from urban and suburban applicants interviewed by Barnes’s team included:
- Urban county: “We always get an automated service. That was so frustrating. Oh, my goodness, because every time you call somebody you’re talking to a machine. You’re not talking to an actual agent; none of the workers; or anything.”
- Suburban county: “I can say that I’ve had a lot of issues with workers because they don't call you back. Like I was trying to add my niece at one point and I couldn’t get anyone to call me back. Or you want to let somebody know that your benefits aren’t working or something happens. Like my benefits stopped working with no notice and it took me over a month to get somebody to call me back.”
Barnes concluded that reductions in burden only matter if people are aware of them. Unfortunately, there is limited knowledge of new changes to programs. “These burdens may mean that applicants and current program recipients really cannot take advantage of this major transformation and access,” she said.
The workshop presentations highlighted evidence demonstrating the measurable benefits of investing in early childhood education, as well as the cognitive and social benefits of early childhood education for young children. Programs such as transitional kindergarten show promise in improving school readiness for children, and research shows that the academic gains acquired through transitional kindergarten are evident in later grades. Health in early life also plays a critical role in closing the opportunity gaps. For example, contexts such as low birthweight, harmful environmental exposures, and child maltreatment have been shown to affect future outcomes for children.
Policy interventions have the potential to mitigate some of the effect of these negative contexts and to be the catalyst for introduction of promising programs and practices that improve health and educational outcomes. As such policies and programs are developed and implemented, it is critical to understand how administrative burden creates barriers to access and participation. Helping families to understand how to access programs, increasing program linkages, and simplifying processes for enrolling in programs all have the potential to reduce barriers for families and to increase participation in programs that could help close the opportunity gap.
COMMITTEE ON EXPLORING THE OPPORTUNITY GAP FOR YOUNG CHILDREN FROM BIRTH TO AGE EIGHT
LaRue Allen (Chair), New York University; Randall Akee, University of California, Los Angeles; Alfredo Artiles, Stanford University; Renee Boynton-Jarrett, Boston University School of Medicine; Kenneth A. Dodge, Duke University; Brenda P. Jones Harden, University of Maryland School of Social Work; Pamela K. Joshi, Brandeis University; Shantel E. Meek, Arizona State University; Bela Mote, Carole Robertson Center for Learning; Milagros Nores, National Institute for Early Education Research; Cynthia Osborne, Child and Family Research Partnership; Albert Wat, Alliance for Early Success; Rebekah Hutton, Study Director.
DISCLAIMER: This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was prepared by Ivory Dean, program officer (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine), as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. The statements made are those of the rapporteur or individual meeting participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all meeting participants; the planning committee; the Board on Children, Youth, and Families; the sponsors; or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The planning committee was responsible only for organizing the public session, identifying the topics, and choosing speakers.
REVIEWERS: To ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity, this Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was reviewed by LaRue Allen, New York University. We also thank staff member Tom Arrison for reading and providing helpful comments. Kirsten Sampson Snyder, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, served as review coordinator.
SPONSORS: The workshop was supported supported by the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Bainum Family Foundation; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Brady Education Foundation; Foundation for Child Development; Heising-Simons Foundation; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2021). Measuring the Opportunity Gap for Children from Birth to Age Eight and Understanding Barriers to Access: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26416.
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Copyright 2021 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.