Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and FFYF executive director Kris Perry contributed the following post to The Hill’s Congress Blog.

In Washington there is much discussion about how to address the nation’s long-term fiscal situation, but very little about how to grow the economy and ensure we are meeting the needs of the next generation of Americans. To achieve both of these objectives, Congress and the administration should start the new year by making a strong investment in high-quality early childhood education.
Study after study has shown that the earliest of experiences are essential, and supportive environments critical, to long term outcomes for kids. But by the time many children in poverty reach five years old and enter school, they already face an achievement gap. Teachers and schools do everything they can, but struggle to close the gap and put students on a trajectory to success in school and the workforce. With early childhood education, we can prevent these costly issues before they arise. It is a bargain investment whose short-term costs are easily offset by immediate and long-term benefits.
Research by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has shown that investments in high-quality early childhood education — focused on the first three years of a child’s life — the most critical developmental period are among the rare social policies that face no tradeoff in economic efficiency. And last March, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke argued persuasively that “the payoffs of early childhood programs can be especially high… investing in such programs can pay off even from the narrow perspective of state budgets; of course, the returns to the overall economy and to the individuals themselves are much greater.”

Early childhood participants are ready to learn and contribute in school from day one. They experience stronger academic gains and better social and emotional development. Over the course of their lifetimes, they are 33 percent more likely to be employed and earn on average $5,500 more per year than their peers who didn’t participate in early learning programs. These improved outcomes benefit all of society and the entire economy. Heckman has found that every dollar invested in early childhood programs returns 7 to 10 percent – per child, per year – for the life of the child through increased productivity and reduced social costs.

Investing in early childhood education addresses the causes of poverty, not just the symptoms. It helps young people and their families become more self-sufficient and productive, providing low-income parents with critical skills they need to be better parents and ensure their children are prepared for kindergarten.

There is widespread support for early learning from both the private and public sectors. The business community has rallied around early childhood with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce highlighting the link between early learning and a strong workforce, and corporations such as AT&T and PNC Bank making major commitments in this area.
A number of governors have been strong supporters of early childhood programs, and policymakers of both parties in many other states are working together to improve program quality and make sure they are investing wisely. The common denominator is the growing realization that our nation must have a workforce development strategy in place for every child that is born, and we cannot wait another day to begin preparing the workforce of tomorrow

At a time when Washington is discussing the economy we will bequeath to future generations, investing in quality early childhood development is one of the smartest possible approaches to strengthen the economy in both the short and long term, while helping to reduce the debt in a balanced way. The only way to create a stronger economy and workforce in the future is to invest in early childhood education now. This year, let’s make it happen.

DeLauro represents Connecticut’s 3rd Congressional District. Perry is executive director of the First Five Years Fund, which advocates for federal policies and investments that promote quality early childhood education.