To Tackle Inequality in Israel, We Need to Look to Early Childhood

Screen capture: givingcompass.org

By Prof. Yossi Shavit

Though issues of inequality have been bubbling below the surface for many years, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted that we can no longer ignore high levels of economic inequality in Israel and around the world because when a crisis like this hits, it does not affect all people equally.

Israelis from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds have been hit hard from this pandemic, from bearing a large brunt of the economic impact – the average income of workers furloughed during the first wave in Israel is about 40% lower than that of their un-furloughed peers – to lacking the technological resources for their kids to participate in remote learning.

We need to address this inequality, and we need to do it by going to the source from which it emerges. After four decades of studying education as a major factor impacting inequality in Israel, I came to the sobering conclusion that addressing inequality in elementary school, when students are still young, is already too late. Research from around the world shows that poverty and the lack of stimulation and resources children experience in early childhood have powerful and lasting impacts on their abilities and potential to achieve throughout the rest of their lives.

In order to better understand this critical period in the life course, we launched an initiative at the Taub Center in August 2019 on Early Childhood Development and Inequality, which has two central goals: to gain a comprehensive understanding of the environmental factors in early childhood and in-utero that lead to this inequality, and to enable the development of policy options geared towards reducing poverty and inequality in Israel.

It is particularly important to understand and address inequalities emerging in early childhood in Israel because Israel has among the highest levels of economic inequality among all OECD countries, the share of children in Israel’s population is double that of other developed countries, and about 30% of children under 17 in Israel live in households with disposable income below the official poverty line. My colleagues and I have already found that poverty during the first two years of a child’s life in Israel appears to have an especially strong and negative effect on later academic achievements.

What’s more is that, while a higher share of Israeli children spend time in early childhood education frameworks than children in other developed countries, there are worrying indicators that the quality of these frameworks is lacking – there are not enough staff per children, the educational levels of staff are relatively low, and public spending invested in early childcare falls short. This is important because time spent in early childhood frameworks has been shown to be a strong predictor of later academic achievements. Findings like these – published only this week in a new Taub Center paper – show that deepening our understanding of the trends behind gaps emerging in early childhood is the first step to minimizing inequality in Israel.

And of course, part of deepening that understanding is examining the implications of the current crisis on young children. While the initiative was launched a few months before the coronavirus outbreak, it has continued to grow and evolve to address our new reality and the challenges it presents. As one example, we are currently analyzing the results of a survey we conducted about the effects of economic and other stress caused by the coronavirus outbreak on Israeli families with young children. In the coming months we will be exploring topics that have not yet been studied in Israel, for which even the collection and consolidation of data is groundbreaking. We will examine the implications of early childhood education frameworks and parents’ labor force participation on children, as well as the long-term impact of economic inequality experienced during early childhood.

However, delving into these important issues is not enough on its own. We also need to make sure that this knowledge reaches and serves as a resource for the people working in the field and driving policy. To that end, the initiative will hold a seminar in which leading academics from relevant fields will train emerging leaders in the field of early childhood from both the government and civil society. Hopefully, the knowledge that the trainees gain in the seminar will inform their policy actions in government and NGOs. The decisions we make now – from policies addressing the coronavirus outbreak to longer-term structural changes – have the potential to reduce economic inequalities in Israel in the future.

The Taub Center Initiative on Early Childhood Development and Inequality, described in this article, is made possible thanks to the generosity of the Beracha Foundation, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, and Yad Hanadiv.

Prof. Yossi Shavit is Chair of the Taub Center Initiative in Early Childhood Development and Inequality.