Over the years, I have seen a number of brain development experts show a slide of two brain scans depicting the difference between a normally developed infant and one deprived of stimulation and a loving relationship.

brainscanIn the well-developed brain on the left, rich areas of red and orange depicting high activity; on the right, a few lobes of orange in a sea of black empty space where there should be active tissue.

The deprived brain was that of a Romanian orphan in the 1990s. Rarely held or snuggled, much less removed from her crib, this poor child’s brain never had the kind of stimulation it required to grow appropriately.

I thought of this recently when I read a new report on poverty by Educational Testing Service that found the U.S. has the second highest rate of child poverty among the 35 richest nations. Only Romania has a greater proportion of its children in poverty than the U.S.

In the last ten years alone, there’s been a 35% increase in child poverty in the U.S., affecting more than one in five kids. The rate is even higher for Latino children (1 in 4) and African American children (nearly 1 in 3).

Researchers in the U.S. are among the world leaders in understanding brain function and development. Thirteen years ago, the National Research Council published From Neurons to Neighborhoods detailing all the science that was known about brain development and the influence of relationships on healthy early childhood.

We have all the evidence we need to justify a robust federal children’s policy that would transform the nation, yet our policies lag far behind our knowledge and far behind all other developed countries in the welfare of our children.

According to the ETS report, the cost of child poverty in the U.S. is $500 billion a year. That’s because, compared to their higher income peers, poor children are more likely to grow up with health problems, complete less school, earn significantly less money, get arrested, or need public assistance.

One solution for child poverty is to ensure all children have access to high-quality early education. A recent poll found that 7 in 10 voters support the President’s federal plan to expand quality early education for all children. In fact, early childhood education is a top priority for voters, second only to increasing jobs and economic growth.

A quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that providing all of the nation’s 4 million four-year-olds, rich and poor, with a year of high-quality preschool would cost about $60 billion. Providing every family with support, intervention, and high-quality early learning could be done for $250 billion, or half the cost of child poverty, and a far better use of the nation’s wealth.

It’s time to change course.  The choice is clear: let’s invest in kids and their families and put to end our international disgrace.

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