The recent income and poverty data published by the Census Bureau show that nearly 50 percent of America's babies and toddlers live in poverty or near poverty. This means that almost half of the country's future workforce is at risk of falling behind their peers before they are able to take their first steps or speak their first words. In this country - the land of opportunity - built on the belief that everyone deserves the chance to earn a prosperous living and reach one's fullest potential, this feels not only startling, but wrong.
Families faced with poverty are forced to make decisions out of necessity and desperation. Low paying jobs, inadequate child care, insufficient nutrition, crowded living arrangements - the challenges they face are almost endless. As these factors compound each other, they elevate the stress and anxiety of a family and can have lasting negative impacts on children - even, and especially, on babies and toddlers.
Babies' earliest experiences set the stage for a lifetime. During children's earliest years, neurons are connecting at a rate that far surpasses any other age period, as the baby's brain builds the foundations for language, thinking and reasoning, and relating to other people. All later development and learning will rest on this basic architecture--and early experiences, interacting with genes, determine whether that foundation is strong or fragile.
When babies experience early stress, it literally gets under their skin. Chronic or severe stress undermines healthy brain growth and biological systems. If not addressed, these impacts can last a lifetime. Poverty, and the conditions that often accompany it, can impose severe early stress, affecting cognitive development in areas such as early language and memory. By age two, toddlers in families with few resources already lag six months behind their peers in more privileged families in early language abilities--a gap that will only widen if nothing is done to prevent or minimize it. Stress also affects brain areas responsible for self-regulation and emotional control. With preschool expulsion rates more than three times the expulsion rate of students in Kindergarten through 12th grade, the need to consider these early experiences more thoughtfully and strategically is well overdue.
While brains can be "rewired", it becomes much harder - and more costly - to change dynamics once the brain has built its circuits based on more negative inputs. In other words, shoring up a shaky foundation is more costly than building a strong one in the first place. Giving the brain and the body the best possible chance to thrive and develop starts when they are being shaped - from birth. Common sense would tell us that babies are more likely to take off developmentally when they have loving, nurturing caregivers who have the time, ability, and resources to provide positive, engaging experiences for them. But it's also a proven scientific fact: babies' brains thrive and grow because of these affirmative early experiences. Responsive care by the important adults in babies' lives helps them regulate stress, with a cascade of positive influences on how they handle their own emotions. The logical next step is to help parents whose lives are filled with the struggle of meeting basic needs provide their children this important buffer against adversity.
But let's face it--the alarming level of babies in or on the brink of poverty hasn't wavered much over the past several years. Poverty's pernicious effect on young children's cognitive development has been known for decades with inadequate responses from policymakers. Even new technology that can peer into the brains of impoverished children to measure diminished growth doesn't seem to galvanize enthusiasm for helping children seen as having deficits.
Maybe it's time to change how we think about--and label--our young children. What if we stop labeling the approximately two million babies who are born into poverty or near poverty each year as "At Risk" and started identifying them as babies with "Unlimited Potential" --and then make it a reality?
The opportunity to cultivate that potential starting from birth for children impacted by poverty is right in front of us. Proven programs designed to give the youngest children the best shot at success - from Early Head Start (EHS) to high-quality, affordable child care to home-visiting programs - arm parents and caregivers with resources and tools that help reduce the negative effects of poverty's stress factors on and boost their children's development. They can also help parents prepare for work opportunities. Yet, the reach of these programs is small--not enough for a society determined to maximize its potential. That society needs to dramatically expand its investment.
Even more can be done by helping working families make ends meet while nurturing their children. Giving working parents quality time to spend with their newborn or newly adopted babies without jeopardizing their ability to pay for basic necessities and employment status could change the dynamics for thousands. Only 22 percent of private sector worksites currently offer maternity leave with pay to all employees. A national paid family leave program would help improve employee retention rates and reduce the stress many families face when caring for babies or sick loved ones.
Another strategy: boosting the income of families in low-wage jobs by enhancing tax credits that encourage and reward their hard work. The Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit have helped lift many working families above the poverty line, with some evidence of positive impacts on child development.
We know that strong, nurturing relationships between parents and their infants help strengthen brain development. We also recognize that children are one of this country's most valuable assets - a barometer of future success and productivity. Smart, proven investments made today, therefore, can make a big difference. Economic analysis demonstrates that the rate of return on investments in early childhood programs is between 7% and 10% per annum. This is because various types of early interventions promote a range of benefits, from greater school success and academic achievement, increased higher education completion and earnings, and better adult health, while often observing less involvement in crime, teen pregnancy, and welfare use. Moreover, investing in babies to ensure they have the best developmental support boosts the return on dollars spent on preschool.
The time to act is now. Children who start out in poverty are more likely to fall behind in their language development, lag behind in later reading proficiency, and experience learning disabilities and developmental delays. The effects of poverty and related adverse experiences can follow children into adulthood. But children who are given a shot at high quality early care and learning starting from birth-- those who are seen as having "unlimited potential" --will be more likely to finish college, earn more, and enjoy better health as adults. Let's urge Congress to act and invest in policies proven to give our next generation of innovators and thinkers the chance they need to succeed - from day one.