Judy Nagel, Envision Board member and Upward Mobility Signals Team

Here in the nation with more gun violence than any other on earth, Americans constantly ask about the root cause of gun violence. The answer is “mental health.” So how are we doing with that? The CDC identifies early childhood as the period in which mental health is largely determined, starting shortly after birth (with some influence by prenatal conditions).

Let’s consider, then, our country’s investment in early childhood development. According to the World Bank, such an investment is the smartest one a country can make. The best time to have a profound impact on brain development, which influences learning, health and behavior, is the first years after birth. Given the need for early developmental mental health, what national policies exist that build a solid footing for mental health? The New York Times reports that the United States is recognized internationally for its low level of financial support for young children’s care. While the average annual public spending of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is $14,436, the United States spends $500 per child, most of it spent on families living in poverty. In contrast Norway spends $29,726 per child, and Denmark, recognized as the country with the best childcare system, spends $23,140.

Head Start is a proven success program for American children, with 839,116 children participating in 2021. However, 42% of those who qualify are not participating in services. Why? The program is underfunded.

So, how does all of that set the stage for surging gun violence? How critical is our lack of investment in early childhood development for preventing deaths by gunshot? In the U.S., guns are the leading cause of death among children and teens. Internationally, the U.S. ranks #1, with 4,357 shooting deaths in 2020. Canada ranks as #5, with 46 shooting deaths in the same year! In its Global Health Policy study Child and Teen Firearm Mortality in the U.S. and Peer Countries, KFF explains that, “in no other similarly large or wealthy country are firearm deaths in the top 4 causes of mortality, let alone the number 1 cause of death among children and teens.”

What are the prospects for the world’s richest, most powerful country as it fails to provide the fundamental building blocks for behavior, health and learning?