Early Care and Education for Children in Immigrant Families

Published in: The Future of Children, v. 21, no. 1, Spring 2011, p. 71-101

Posted on RAND.org on March 31, 2011

by Lynn A. Karoly, Gabriella C. Gonzalez

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A substantial and growing share of the population, immigrant children are more likely than children with native-born parents to face a variety of circumstances, such as low family income, low parental education, and language barriers that place them at risk of developmental delay and poor academic performance once they enter school. Lynn Karoly and Gabriella Gonzalez examine the current role of and future potential for early care and education (ECE) programs in promoting healthy development for immigrant children. Participation in center-based care and preschool programs has been shown to have substantial short-term benefits and may also lead to long-term gains as children go through school and enter adulthood. Yet, overall, immigrant children have lower rates of participation in nonparental care of any type, including center-based ECE programs, than their native counterparts. Much of the participation gap can be explained by just a few economic and sociodemographic factors, the authors find. To some extent, the factors that affect disadvantaged immigrant children resemble those of their similarly disadvantaged native counterparts. Affordability, availability, and access to ECE programs are structural barriers for many immigrant families, as they are for disadvantaged families more generally. Language barriers, bureaucratic complexity, and distrust of government programs, especially among undocumented immigrants, are unique challenges that may prevent some immigrant families from taking advantage of ECE programs, even when their children might qualify for subsidies. Cultural preferences for parental care at home can also be a barrier. Thus the authors suggest that policy makers follow a two-pronged approach for improving ECE participation rates among immigrant children. First, they note, federal and state ECE programs that target disadvantaged children in general are likely to benefit disadvantaged immigrant children as well. Making preschool attendance universal is one way to benefit all immigrant children. Second, participation gaps that stem from the unique obstacles facing immigrants, such as language barriers and informational gaps, can be addressed through the way publicly subsidized and private or nonprofit programs are structured.

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