Sixty-four percent of our poorest infants and toddlers live with parents who are working. Nevertheless, efforts of pressure groups in the United States have been directed - sucessfully - at reducing poverty among the elderly while programs that help children are being short-changed.
Scientists at the first White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning presented exciting new research into how a baby's brain grows. We now know that children's experiences during their first years of life clearly help to determine their brain structures and have a profound impact on the way children learn, think and behave for the rest of their lives.
But the recent conference gingerly side-stepped the single greatest threat to brain development in America's youngest children: poverty.According to a new report from the National Center for Children in Poverty, 2.8 million children under age 3 in the United States - 24 percent - are poor (living in families with incomes below the federal poverty line of $15,569 for a family of four).
Since 1975, the infant and toddler poverty rate has grown by 33 percent.
The trends in early childhood poverty over the last two decades contradict many stereotypes.
For example, the poverty rate of our youngest citizens has grown faster among white and suburban children than among black and urban children.
Early childhood poverty also extends beyond single-parent families.
The poverty rate has risen by 35 percent for children under age 3 living with married parents.
And most poor infants and toddlers (64 percent in 1995) have employed parents.
Thus, moving parents from welfare to work alone will not solve the problem of early childhood poverty and reverse the baby-brain drain.
Recent research has made clearer that exposure to such risks as inadequate nutrition, environmental toxins, trauma and abuse, maternal depression and substance abuse, and low-quality child care can adversely affect early brain development.
Infants and toddlers are especially vulnerable to poverty because it increases the chances that they will be exposed to these risks during this most formative stage of their lives.
The cumulative effects of these poverty-related risks on young children are this country's most serious brain drain.
We know enough now to mount effective practices and programs that protect infants and toddlers from the harmful effects of poverty on early brain development.
Parents and concerned adults can talk with and read to young children.
Citizens can insist that their elected representatives support programs proved effective at reducing risks for children, such as nutrition programs, home-visiting programs to help identify and prevent potential trauma and abuse, and caregiver training to improve the quality of child care and teach child-care providers how to create more responsive and intellectually stimulating environments.
But the common-sense logic of ``an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure' requires us to do more to address the primary risk factor, which is child poverty itself.
Innovative strategies are needed to reduce the early childhood poverty rate and address the long-term growth in the number of working poor families with children.
Many low-income children with working parents could be helped by new partnerships between government and employers in order to make quality child care and health insurance more affordable and accessible.
Children in these families would also benefit from expanded state and federal earned-income tax credits and child tax credits.
Current proposals for a tax credit for children would not benefit many children because their families earn too little to owe taxes.
But if the tax credit for children were refundable as cash, it would help the most needy children, not just those in families in higher income brackets.
The United States can learn from other Western democracies that have developed policies that effectively protect their children from poverty.
We can also apply the lessons of our own successes in protecting the elderly from poverty.
Over the last 35 years, while the child poverty rate has been growing in the United States, the elderly poverty rate has been reduced by two thirds, cut from more than 30 percent down to nearly 10 percent.
Virtually all senior citizens have benefited from Social Security and Medicare while many of our youngest citizens have been denied similar income supports and medical coverage during their most developmentally sensitive years.
In addition to the recent White House conference, there are other indications of a growing awareness of the importance of early childhood issues.
The National Governors Association has created a bipartisan Early Childhood Task Force, and Colin Powell is campaigning to promote citizens' volunteer efforts on behalf of children.
Recent events could mark a turning point for the nation, but only if an army of grown-ups - parents, community leaders, business executives and government officials - takes action.