02/07/2012 07:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2012

Our Sacred Obligation

This post is part of a series on childhood poverty in the United States in partnership with Save the Children and Julianne Moore. Moore leads the organization's Valentine's Day campaign. To learn more, go to

As a public servant, I spend a lot of time thinking about the impact my actions have on the world around me, and how I could be a faithful friend to those in need. From my first post-college job as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps teaching fifth grade in inner-city Philadelphia, to my work now as a Senator from Pennsylvania, I try to keep in mind the sacred obligation that all of us -- especially those in positions of influence -- have to help the most vulnerable.

When it comes to our Nation's children, I would ask all of us to consider whether we are living up to this obligation. At least four elements are fundamental to children's healthy growth and ability to succeed: good health, good nutrition, a solid education early in life, and safety from those who would do them harm. We share this obligation, as Nation as well as communities and individuals, to provide these elements for all of our children.

Unfortunately, with one in four American children living in poverty, we are not reaching this shared goal. There are too many gaps in the safety net through which children fall and can never climb back. Moreover, investing in children isn't only the right thing to do morally: it makes sense economically.

Children who learn more today earn more tomorrow, and the earlier children are exposed to quality learning opportunities, the better off they are. Investing in early childhood education is a cost-effective strategy that will help improve economic growth in the long run. Leading economists, including Nobel Laureate James Heckman and former Federal Reserve economist Art Rolnick, have pointed to early childhood education as an example of a sound public investment that benefits taxpayers. In fact, research has found that the return on investment of high-quality early childhood as great as $16 for every $1 invested.

Regrettably, high-quality early childhood programs currently reach just a fraction of those children and families who stand to benefit. Only one in six children who are eligible to receive federal child care assistance ends up accessing it. Only 4 percent of eligible infants and toddlers participate in Early Head Start and less than half of eligible preschool-age children participate in Head Start. In rural areas, including parts of Pennsylvania, many eligible children live in regions where quality early learning programs are not available, and so these children miss out on the benefits early education can provide.

We have the ability to lift children out of poverty and into a life of greater success; what we need is the will to do so. With one in four children living in poverty, reducing child poverty must be among our top priorities, and I will do my part to make sure this continues to be a serious topic of discussion in the Senate.

By being a faithful friend to every child in America, over time we will all reap the rewards of this friendship. And they, and we, will be better for it.