About 75 million Americans are under the age of 18, and more than 16 million of these kids live in poverty. Many sit in bright classrooms where they are taught by excellent teachers and go home to parents who shower them with every advantage. But far too many kids are stuck. They are trapped in drab schools of little learning and in troubled neighborhoods filled with jobless adults. These young people — and their difficulty in finding a path to a better future — are a growing national concern.

To focus on that inequality, The Washington Post convened educators, economists and child experts on March 5 to talk about how to lift the prospects of all children. At the “Children and Families Summit 2013” there was agreement — even across political party lines — on one key point: Educating youngsters in high quality preschools is money wisely spent. Currently, about a quarter of 4-year-olds do not attend school, and these children are overwhelmingly from low-income families. The United States ranks 28 out of 38 among developed countries in the share of 4-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The return on money invested in teaching children early — before age 5, a time of rapid learning and critical brain development — is well established. Those who don’t attend good preschools are more likely to drop out of school and have teen pregnancies. Those who start their education in a quality preschool ultimately land higher-paying jobs.

President Obama raised the hopes of child advocates in his recent State of the Union address when he called for universal preschool for 4-year-olds. He has yet to detail how he will fund the costly expansion but said it will be in partnership with the states. Several speakers at the Post forum pointed out the consequences if we don’t invest more in children, even in difficult economic times.

“It’s absolutely critical,” Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician who co-founded, along with the singer Paul Simon, the Children’s Health Fund. “We are about to invest unbelievable billions of dollars in the F-35s, a jet-fighter system that military officials don’t want. We have money all over the place, even though we’re in a time of austerity. We have to figure out how to prioritize our budgets, so we have our children growing up with appropriate opportunity.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who also spoke at the summit, said he was optimistic there would be a significant expansion of high-quality early education because of “leadership coming from the states.”

“I don’t know if we have ever seen so much bipartisan support coming from governors across the country,” Duncan said, citing grass-roots support from “real people who have real children they have to worry about.”

John Engler, the former Republican governor of Michigan who is now president of the Business Roundtable, said, “There’s no straight line — the more you spend, the better the results.” But, he said, we ought to make sure “that at least the rising generation, as they’re coming up, are all able to participate fully in the education system.”

Engler also said what families really needed was jobs. “The best anti-poverty program is a stronger economy. An 8 percent unemployment rate does put families at risk.”

Dana Points, editor in chief of Parents magazine, said her surveys also showed that the number one concern among parents was jobs. She noted that the cost of raising a middle-class child was $235,000 — not including college.

Poor families just want more opportunity, said Maurice Lim Miller, founder of the California-based Family Independence Initiative. “Most people actually don’t want handouts. They want to earn it, and that issue of how to earn it is the problem.”

— Mary Jordan

Editor, Washington Post Live


45 percent of people who spent
at least half their childhood in poverty were poor at age 35.

Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty

20.2 million children lived in a single-parent home in 2009.

U.S. Census