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CSAs as Part of a Comprehensive Child Development Strategy

Last week, I attended the Federal Reserve Bank’s Strong Foundations: The Economic Futures of Kids and Communities conference. Much of the conference focused on making early investments in children in order to improve their longer-term wealth and health outcomes. While Children’s Savings Accounts (CSAs) were not explicitly discussed, they clearly fit into this discussion. CSAs are an early intervention—a way to let children know from an early age that their community, city or state believes in their potential and is investing in their future. In this blog, I will share a few highlights from the research presented at the conference and discuss the implications for CSA programs.

The opening plenary, along with several other sessions, focused on the importance of investing in early childhood development interventions. Researchers shared findings showing that the foundation for academic success, lifelong good health and future economic success is laid in children’s early years, starting even before birth. While K-12 education is important to children’s development, as Katherine Magnuson of the University of Wisconsin put it, kids don’t arrive in kindergarten as blank slates who are all equally ready to learn. Rather, the experiences, both positive and negative, of their first few years affect children’s readiness to learn and succeed in school.

Jack Shonkoff of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child layered on to this research by showing that we can’t make real improvements in the lives of vulnerable children independent of the adults who care for them. Toxic stress during children’s early years—such as that experienced in households struggling with financial insecurity—has a significant, negative impact on their development. The way to alleviate this toxic stress is through interventions that improve parents’ financial situations.

Overall, the policy implications of the research presented at the conference are clear—we need to make deep investments in vulnerable children and their parents or guardians in the first few years of children’s lives and sustain that investment throughout their childhood if we truly want to change their life trajectories. These findings have several potential implications for CSA design that warrant further research and exploration:

  • Start earlier – The age of enrollment in CSA programs ranges from birth through high school. Given what we know about the importance of the first few years of children’s development, how much more impact might starting a program at birth have on children’s development and long-term outcomes than starting at kindergarten or middle school?
  • Integrate CSAs within broader interventions – Research points to the need for a whole suite of interventions to move the needle on children’s development and economic outcomes. This suggests that program coordinators should plug their CSA programs into a broader set of services (as some programs are already doing), including prenatal care, home visiting programs for vulnerable children, universal pre-K, quality K-12 education, college access programs and support for low-income college students.
  • Incorporate robust parental supports – Given the strong connection between household financial insecurity and children’s outcomes, it is important to think about whether CSA programs can provide more robust wraparound services for parents. Improvements in parents’ financial well-being will enable them to save more in their children’s accounts. At a deeper level, addressing household financial insecurity will reduce toxic stress in children’s lives and enable parents to make more investments in their children’s development, such as reading to them and getting more involved in their education.

An innovative model that incorporates these ideas is Oakland Promise, a cradle-to-career initiative that includes scholarships, future centers and CSA programs to ensure that children graduate from high school with the resources needed to attend postsecondary education and have a successful career. Oakland Promise includes Brilliant Baby, which is a two-generation CSA program in which babies from vulnerable families that participate in a home visiting program receive an initial deposit of $500 into a CSA. At the same time, their parents can receive up to $500 in an account along with financial coaching and other supports. It is too early to see the results of this program, but the concept of a comprehensive program that supports children and their parents during children’s critical 0-3 developmental stage holds great promise.

Since the CSA field is still relatively young and rapidly growing, we have a golden opportunity to explore design options that put CSAs squarely into a suite of interventions that help children develop into educated, successful, healthy adults. I’m eager to talk with others in the field about their ideas on this. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or email me, Shira Markoff, at smarkoff@cfed.org.

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