The two-year budget deal reached between president and Congress is welcomed – but may not actually achieve any meaningful economic impact beyond preventing a default on our debt.  There is an opportunity, however, to use the room created under the domestic spending cap to lay the foundation for a sound future economy by investing in our future workers – where it all begins and where it can have the greatest long-term benefits: on day one.

The research is clear: when infants and young toddlers benefit from positive early learning experiences, along with good quality healthcare and the basics for living, the foundation for their future development is significantly improved.  When they don’t get what they need, their future – and, in turn, the country’s future – is much more uncertain. Investments in proven programs designed to benefit the nation’s youngest children, therefore, should be considered as critical and strategic as investments in other key sectors of growth. 

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The fact is, however, that too many infants and toddlers face adversity of one sort or another.  Nearly half of America’s babies live in families in low-income familiesClose to one quarter live in outright poverty, or on incomes of $24,230 or less for a family of four in 2014. Almost one in five faces three or more risk factors, including poverty, having a single parent, or having a parent with little education. One out of four young children are considered at moderate or high risk for developmental or behavioral problemsResearch shows that poverty, as well as multiple adverse experiences, at an early age can be especially harmful, impacting chances for future academic achievement and workplace success.

There are proven investments that should be brought to scale. Congress has the opportunity to use the higher spending caps to increase funding for critical discretionary programs essential to the health and well-being of children and families.  Current federal funding for programs designed to meet the early learning needs of low-income children is at the lowest level in a decade.  Congress must use the additional domestic funding to invest in long-term proven solutions to ensure America’s babies are ready to learn when they get to school and America’s future workforce is up for the job in the 21st century. 

Supporting early learning opportunities begins with expanding Early Head Start, significantly increasing investments in high quality child care, and increasing early intervention funding for babies, all programs constrained by the caps. Together with the extension earlier this year of proven home visiting programs through the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program, these increases would make a meaningful difference, giving thousands of very young children the chance for the experiences that foster strong development.

Congress could go further in giving hard working parents a better chance at keeping their jobs and providing for their families.  A national paid family leave program would go a long way toward increasing workplace retention rates, boosting morale and giving parents the quality and critical time to spend with their newborns or newly adopted babies. Congress could dedicate new funding to the up-front investment needed to enact and kick-start the paid leave program—funded through modest employee and employer contributions—envisioned in the FAMILY Act.

These types of investments are not quick-return opportunities.  They are designed to change the developmental paths of children who experience the detrimental and potentially lasting impact of early trauma, neglect and poverty, and in the process yield significant long-term savings to society by positively impacting a number of critical markers – from improving graduation rates to reducing crime and welfare dependency. By using some of the hard-won and therefore precious funding increases to give more babies opportunities for positive early learning experiences now, we would be sowing the seeds of a stronger workforce and economy in the future.

The fact is that babies who have a healthy start in life have a greater chance to grow into productive citizens and strong, effective parents themselves. Babies’ brains develop at a rate that far surpasses any other period in their lives.  It is when the foundation for thinking, language, emotion, and self-regulation take shape.  An investment at this crucial time, when basic brain architecture is being formed, can potentially change the course of life for generations. Congress must seize the opportunity to invest in programs designed to give babies and their families the best chance for success.  After all, they are this country’s next generation of workers, innovators and leaders. 

Melmed is the executive director of ZERO TO THREEa national nonprofit committed to promoting the health and development of infants and toddlers.