Investing in Children


May 31, 2013

preschool boy and girl being creative

“The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity” (Principle 2, Declaration of the Rights of the Child 1959).

This declaration prompted the designation of an annual Children's Day, celebrated in many European countries on the first day of June. On this date, children typically receive presents from their parents and participate in various sport and cultural activities. However, the historic objective of Children's Day was not simply to celebrate children for who they are, but to bring attention to children around the world who suffer from exploitation, violence and discrimination. Raising awareness and strengthening children's rights have long been objectives for many international and national organizations.

In the current climate of austerity, it is more important than ever that policy makers arrive at well-informed decisions about directing scarce resources to improve children's lives. In Europe, the recent Recommendation from the European Commission (EC), Investing in children: breaking the cycle of disadvantage, seeks to promote the welfare of children by “organizing and implementing policies to address child poverty and social exclusion” and to “promote children's well-being.” To help identify the best child-friendly policies and to share evidence-based information about what works to improve the lives of children, families and communities, the EC Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion has established the European Platform for Investing in Children (EPIC). RAND Europe has been commissioned to provide content and technical support to this online platform.

EPIC aims to share best practices, and to foster cooperation and mutual learning on child-focused policies and practices. The policy objectives of EPIC are to support parenting, assist with childcare, promote families' well-being and help children reach their full potential. Researchers have been emphasising for a long time that investment in children's services across a broad range of policy areas can produce large socio-economic returns, in particular for disadvantaged children.

Yet, it is not only about investing in children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds; all children and their parents can benefit from well-designed, well-implemented quality programmes that promote child development and well-being. Effective family, health and education policies can make a tremendous positive difference in addressing risk factors that can trigger a life-long cycle of disadvantage. RAND researchers have shown that interventions during early childhood in areas such as healthcare and education are most effective in breaking the transmission of poverty between generations. Noted economist James J. Heckman's studies in 1999 and 2008 argue that spending on children's services should be seen as an investment that would capitalise later in life, and that early investment produces much higher returns in human capital.

RAND's EPIC work directly answers to the needs of transparent and effective policies that improve children's life chances and parenting skills. As an interactive platform, the 'Practices that Work' section of the EPIC website provides a database of practices and programmes that have been implemented in EU Member States. In line with the EC Recommendation to “strengthen the use of evidence-based approaches,” the Evidence-Based Family Practices section of the website applies a rigorous evaluation framework meeting scientific standards of transparency and replicability.

This evaluation framework was developed together with RAND researchers working on the US-based Promising Practices Network. Practices are assessed against the quality criteria of effectiveness, transferability and enduring impact. Examples of evidence-based family practices include, for instance, the Incredible Years programme and the European Drug Abuse Prevention Trial, both implemented in several EU countries.

The Family Practice User Registry section provides a resource for sharing ideas and lessons learned. In this way, policymakers and practitioners are encouraged to submit child-focused practices that they are developing or implementing. The User Registry includes more than 90 practices and continues to grow.

RAND researchers have been working with stakeholders from across the EU to gather promising programmes and practices that are making a difference in people's lives. This fully searchable database provides examples of practices from EU Member State countries targeted at different populations and age groups. For instance, the latest additions to this section include the Centres for Families programme implemented in Italy and the Dads in Demand project from the United Kingdom.

Success of the EPIC project largely depends on user interactions, including the sharing of experiences and the promotion of effective and promising practices. Engagement with the EPIC interactive platform brings benefits to practitioners, policymakers and society as a whole. In times of economic austerity, the imperative to spend public money efficiently is even higher. The EPIC website provides policymakers with reliable and effective examples of interventions to inform decisions. It provides confidence for policymakers that limited resources have been allocated to practices known to be effective, which can then improve outcomes for a wider population.

As children are the future of our nations, investing wisely to improve more children's lives will bring enduring benefits to us all.

Barbara Janta is an analyst in the Education, Employment and Social Policy team at RAND Europe. Her research interests include employment, migration, ageing and family policy in Europe.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.