Defeat poverty by investing early in our children

We wrote this blog at the request of our partners at the Defeat Poverty DC coalition. Sign up to join the campaign here

The surest way to break the cycle of poverty in D.C. is to start where it begins for so many in our city, at birth. We need to give our youngest and most vulnerable children the support and resources they need to thrive and have a bright future. As the mother of two young children, I can expound endlessly on why it is the morally right thing to do. But in this difficult economy, it also just makes practical and economic sense. 

More than a quarter of children in the District live in families struggling in poverty, according to the latest Kids Count data reported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. By providing low-income children with access to quality, comprehensive early care and early education—child care and early learning programs that meet critical health, developmental and socio-emotional needs—we can greatly increase their odds of success in school and over their lifetimes. 

Research over the past two decades clearly shows that children’s brains grow most rapidly between the ages of 0 and 3. In these earliest years, they form the vital brain connections that make later learning and development possible. In fact, if we miss this window to properly “wire the brain,” no amount of remediation may make up the difference. (Click here to see an interactive brain map.)

It is devastating to think that if we don’t reach children in time, they may be permanently impaired--through no fault of their own.

It’s not just the child who pays the price.

Study after study proves that when children from low-income backgrounds have the benefit of high-quality early care and early education, they are much more likely to become productive members of society and less likely to become dependent on government assistance as adults. Investing early helps prevent a host of social troubles, from truancy to teenage pregnancy, high school dropouts to violent crime and everything in between.  

In classic economic terms, there is also a multiplier effect that springs from the productive intervention in the development of our youngest citizens. Parents who are assured that their children are being well cared for are more productive at work and are less likely to call in sick. Early care and early education is also a source of good jobs with health benefits to thousands in our city, who in turn make it possible for parents to work or go back to school to find better jobs.

In fact, economists have found that investments in quality early care and early education promise a much greater return than other social programs. And just as the health care industry is turning toward more preventative measures to save costs in the long run, it makes sense that those invested in education reform should do the same by prioritizing early childhood development. 

It’s particularly heartbreaking to think that some children in our city are barely given a fighting chance to thrive. The Kids Count data also reveal that infant mortality is actually rising in the District. At 13.1 infant deaths per 1,000 live births, it’s nearly double the rate nationally—right here in the nation’s capital.

If that isn’t a wakeup call, I don’t know what is. We need to speak up and act now for our youngest citizens. The future of our city depends on it.