Today, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released the 2013 KIDS COUNT Data Book which revealed a marked increase in the number of U.S. children living in poverty, painting a bleaker picture of America’s economic future. We know from experience that disadvantaged children are least likely to receive the quality early childhood development that study after study has proven is a necessary foundation for success in school, college, career and life. These findings reinforce the need for investments in high-quality early childhood education for children birth through age five as a way to promote economic well-being, reduce inequality and grow the economy.

According to the report, the child poverty rate rose to 23 percent in 2011. For our nation’s youngest children — those under three years old — it was 26 percent. While some states took significant steps to ensure small gains were made in early educational opportunities for at-risk children, fewer than half (46 percent) of 3- and 4-year- olds nationwide attended preschool and only a small percentage of disadvantaged children participated in high-quality early childhood programs.

The data speaks for itself. By the time nearly half of our nation’s children enter kindergarten, too many are already facing severe deficits in their cognitive and character skills, greatly reducing their chances at being successful in school and making productive contributions to our economy and society. Groundbreaking research by Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman clearly shows that investing in high-quality early learning experiences and enriched family environments for disadvantaged children from birth to age 5 is the most effective way to prepare them for success in school and life. These quality investments elevate the individual while providing great returns for taxpayers, yielding a 7-10 percent return—per child, per year—through improved education, health and social outcomes and the reduced need for social spending.

While this year’s report is disheartening, it comes at a time of unprecedented recognition of the power of early childhood education. In April, the President outlined his comprehensive Preschool for All proposal which would help states greatly improve access to high quality early childhood programs for children from birth to age five. Meanwhile, policymakers, educators, business leaders, law enforcement officials and economists alike have joined forces to Grow America Stronger through smart and proven investments in early childhood.

All the evidence shows that investing in early childhood education is one of the best ways to prevent the achievement gap, increase school readiness and lay the foundation for an effective workforce. Early childhood education is one of the best ways to fight poverty by providing the skills for upward mobility. If we hope to improve upon this year’s KIDS COUNT data in the years ahead, we must make progress on providing access to quality early childhood development for disadvantaged children.