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As this election year continues to unfold, we’ll hear more and more about jobs, creating opportunity and the future of the nation. Children, too, must be part of that dialogue.

Thursday afternoon, I participated in the MomsRising live Tweet Chat with the White House on Unemployment Insurance and the Administration’s priorities for families for 2012. Unemployment was front and center because on Feb. 28, federally-funded unemployment benefits will expire for millions of long-term unemployed workers still trying to find jobs in this difficult economy. Struggling families need the benefit of extended UI benefits, and they need the nation’s policymakers to focus on restoring health to the economy and creating an environment that promotes jobs creation.

At the same time, policymakers must focus on the nation’s youngest citizens. In 2011, myriad data was released demonstrating that children are worse off due to the state of the economy and nation’s families. The year 2011 also saw an increase in child poverty, with one in four young children living in poverty. There also was a decline in child well-being as measured across a wide range of domains directly related to economic losses for families with children. And a recent article on economic mobility found that children in the United States are less likely to move up the economic ladder than in any other developed country.

But policy can make a difference. During the Tweet Chat, the White House responded to our question about  early education investments by noting that the Administration continues to make early learning a priority. It is true. In difficult budgets in FY 2011 and FY 2012, Head Start and child care received funding increases. The White House’s signature early childhood initiative, the Early Learning Challenge, came to fruition through funding for Race To the Top in FY 2011. In November, the Administration announced the first Office of Early Learning in the Department of Education, and in December it selected the first round of Early Learning Challenge grant recipients to receive funds for the critically important work of building strong, high-quality state systems out of fragmented early childhood programs and services.

Hopefully the commitment to children doesn’t end there because there is a lot more work to be done. Despite momentum, these are not the brightest days for early childhood. Only one in six children federally-eligible for child care assistance receives any help. In 22 states, families seeking child care assistance face waiting lists or frozen intake. Fewer than half of eligible preschoolers attend Head Start despite decades of research showing this critical comprehensive early education and family support program can help improve the odds for poor children. Moreover, Early Head Start reaches less than 4 percent of eligible infants and toddlers, a group of children for whom finding quality, affordable child care is a near impossibility for families regardless of income.

These core early childhood programs provide young children access to quality early education that helps prepare them to succeed in school and in life. And children need this support more than ever. The data on child well-being and poverty show that we are failing our children.

The Administration asked what should its policy priorities be for upcoming fiscal year 2013. Presidential candidates are also touting their priorities for the nation. The future of the nation will be determined not just by economic and workforce policies put in place now, but also by how we treat and invest in children, our future.

Putting a priority on young children means putting a priority on where children spend their time, which is a child care setting for 12 million young children every day. Quality child care builds a strong foundation for children’s healthy development. In 2012, Congress and the Administration demonstrated they understand the importance of investments in children in these difficult budgetary times. But the evidence shows we still have quite a way to go. In 2013 and beyond, we must make sure investing in young children remains a priority.

Follow me on Twitter at @HNMatthews


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