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For Kids, the First Five Years Are Forever

Startling new research shows that the 1 in 6 American kids living in poverty are subject to stress that can transform their very physiology, impeding intellectual skills for the rest of their lives.
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At an annual conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week, scientists revealed startling new research about the 1 in 6 kids living in poverty in the United States. Their work showed that the stress of growing up in a home where food is scarce and books are limited can transform a child's very physiology and brain wiring, impeding intellectual skills for the rest of their lives.

Even worse, this all occurs before a kid's first day of kindergarten.

Indeed, our public education system mostly ignores the earliest--and most important--years in a child's development. We only spend 14 percent of public education dollars before kids are five. Ironically, it's this time in a child's development when 90 percent of brain growth occurs.

Simply put, these early years are when kids living in low-income areas need the most help, but that's also when our educational system does the least for them. It's an incongruity that dims otherwise bright futures.

Fortunately, the Obama administration has made investing in young kids a consistent budget priority since day one. Last year's stimulus bill allotted $2 billion for Head Start and this year's budget proposal asks for yet another billion dollars, which will go a long way to reaching and investing in the millions of kids whose future depends upon a solid education.

On top of this effort, President Obama and members of Congress who support a fair start for all kids are leading a fight for legislation that would cut bank subsidies and shift a portion of the funds into an Early Learning Challenge Fund. If the bill passes, the Fund would provide $1 billion annually in grants to innovative early education programs instead of $1 billion in bonuses to bankers.

Still, passage of this bill would only make a small start toward progress on ending a childhood poverty crisis that threatens the next generation and, consequently, America's ability to compete in the future global economy.

This week, millions of Americans are engaged in a noisy debate about the fairness of Olympic judges and the rules of sports. It's not clear why we don't have a similarly robust debate about basic fairness for the 1 in 6 kids living in poverty in the U.S.