Childhood is the most interesting segment of the population to invest in for the social policy of any country. Moreover, in 2008 the Nobel Prize for Economy Heckman proved that the earliest years of life generate the greatest return as concerns the growth of the human assets of a nation. Generally speaking, there is great conensus about responsiveness towards the needs of children; nonetheless, the intensity of the institutional response to childhood issues varies from one context to another.
By adopting a wide and cross-cutting approach, during the 25 years elapsed since the signing of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child (New York, 1989,) much progress has been made as regards practical measures to protect the evolving capacities of people in their earliest years. We must however take into account how, during the past decade, a decreasing optimism and greater difficulties arose concerning the accomplishment of all the objectives endorsed in the Declaration.
The guarantee of services oriented to provideuniversal care foryoung children and their families, simultaneously ensuring equal opportunities to all the childrenof a nation, eradicating child poverty and the reproduction of social differences, jointly with equal responsibilities and rights for fathers and mothers, is an intent which only a few countries may boast to have fully achieved.
There are different prominent aspects: one of the most important is the time needed to evaluate concrete results. It is a well-known fact that the most profitable investments are long-term ones, as is the case with childhood. Nevertheless, not every government may have the capabilities to wait for long cycles in order to capitalize on investments whose results will materialize decades later…
On the other hand, the application of a policy targeting early childhood is articulated and complete: it implies an involvement in the sharing of responsibilities and a synergy among the families, the State, and the market, as well as among the levels of different administrations. As a result, the technical design of the respective system in each country seems to be variable according to the geometry of its components, and the different sensibilities of political decision-makers. Perhaps the most mature response could be a diversified offer of several modalities and servicesfor early childhood care. These may enable their families, especially mothers, to make a free choice without compromising their own personal realization, while ensuring the best methods to emboldeneach minor beyond its family determinants.
If we focus on the question of gender, we may say that, notwithstanding the significant changes occurred during the past 50 years, the actual situation of child care is still prevalently sexist: as a rule, the duty to devote oneself primarily to child care is still assigned to women.
We observe significant differences in both regions concerning this point. In Europepolicies for child care, meant to conciliate family and work life, are more developed and a consequence of this is a wider integration of women in the labour market. It is therefore confirmed that, although such policies alone cannot transform gender relations to the extent of attaining a fully equitable division of child care between men and women, they have nonetheless allowed for important advances made in this direction, as it is highlighted in the comparative studies among European countries (see, for example, the variability of gender equality indicators between Baltic and Mediterranean countries.)
On the other hand, Latin America presents a considerable heterogeneity as regards the social organizationof child care, a consequence of the differentcultural traditions, labour markets, and patterns of production. There is still a long way to go to overcome the idea that child care must be exclusively provided by families (meaning mothers),a conviction that explains the very scarce presence of maternal rooms, nursery schools, and childhood centres in the region.
Luckily, we must also register how different Latin American countries have actuated ambitious national programmes for early childhood in the past few years, showing a desire to decidedly invest in actions that combine attention to minors before their integration into compulsory school with support to their families and promotion of effective equal opportunities for men and women in the labour market.
The European Union, thanks to its Europe 2020 planning, is consolidating the strategic importance of thissocial policysector, intended as an investment entailing an intelligent, sustainable, and inclusive development, offering long-term benefits for childhood, economy, and society as a whole. Europe has become aware that an early intervention and prevention are essential in order to formulate more effective and efficient policies. Such awareness comes from a hard lesson Europe has had to learn during the past 50 years: the public expenditure allotted to attenuate the consequences of poverty and social exclusion for “older” children is usually greater than the expenditure needed for a compensatory intervention targeting children in their earlier years.
Therefore, to invest in early childhood seems to be a necessity both for liberal-market and equalitarian, social rights-oriented sensibilities: in the first instance, because it implies a very profitable investment aimed at the qualification of the human assets of a nation, thus increasing its competitiveness; in the second one, because it is the most efficient investment to counter poverty, to break the cycle of social disadvantages, and to promote gender equality. Consequently, the smallest children have achieved an unusual consensus since they are, at any rate, the best investment.
(Picture by María Peris Laparra)