This election season, we are hearing from local, state and federal candidates about the need to expand opportunity or address poverty in this country in a meaningful way. It’s a complex issue that will require complex solutions.

But the one thing we know for sure is that our elected officials should all begin with the baby steps of making sure low-income children have access to quality early childhood education, from birth to age 5. These early learning experiences prepare children for school by forming the foundational skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in the classroom and beyond.

Busy little brains

The science is clear and compelling. Motor skills, literacy and numeracy, analyzing, vocabulary and speech are all made possible through new connections between neurons in the brain. Seven-hundred of these connections are formed every second in the first three years of life, through interaction with parents and caregivers. Unfortunately, children living in poverty are least likely to have exposure to these experiences and early learning. Every parent wants to do right by their child, but not every parent has the time, resources or tools without some help and guidance.

Without these opportunities, children begin school well behind their peers, and as the evidence shows, many kids never catch up. Children from more affluent families are, on average, exposed to 30 million more words than children from low-income families. And this disparity goes beyond words to gaps in critical social and emotional skills such as attentiveness, impulse control, persistence and teamwork—all the skills necessary for effective, lifelong learning.

"75 percent of voters say we should invest more—or equally—in early education over college." 

Breaking the cycle

Therefore, if we want to set our most vulnerable children on the path to break the cycle of poverty, we must first ensure that each child has the opportunity to arrive at kindergarten with the foundational skills they need to succeed—through programs such as home visiting, high quality child care and development and prekindergarten.

When children participate in high quality programs there are gains in achievement and decreases in behavior problems, grade repetition and special education, which are followed by increases in high school graduation rates, increased earnings, decreased crime and better health outcomes. By some estimations, we see a 26 percent increase in adult earnings and the ability to prevent chronic diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The political front

As candidates for office spell out their plans to support children and families, reduce poverty and create opportunity, investing in quality early childhood education should be a top policy priority. The good news is, investing in early childhood is emerging as the one bipartisan issue in a deeply polarized society. Governors from red and blue states alike are making significant investments in early learning. The U.S. Congress has found bipartisan agreement on increasing funding for existing programs and creating new ones. In fact, 75 percent of voters say we should invest more—or equally—in early education over college. But more needs to be done.

Anyone who wants to fight poverty can walk that talk by making sure low-income children have access high-quality early childhood education. Baby steps are giant steps toward shared prosperity.