01/30/2012 07:41 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

Kids Missing From State of the Union

Last week -- the morning after President Obama's State of the Union Speech -- I spoke to 450 National Head Start Association teachers, managers, and leaders on the topic of "sustaining excellence." This group probably has a more direct, personal and intimate understanding of the special challenges facing low-income children than anyone else in the country. Many have devoted their entire careers to early childhood development and while their commitment was unshaken, there was a weariness borne of repeated and distracting budget battles and the failure of policymakers to truly appreciate the critical importance of what they do.

In introducing me, their president, Yasmina Vinci, noted with some disappointment that in the president's speech the night before he had not mentioned either Head Start or early childhood development. At first I thought it was just the classic disappointment shared by countless activists inside the beltway -- ranging from environmentalists to labor unions to defense contractors who lobby for weeks and months for even a passing reference in the State of the Union address to some item on their organization's agenda. The glow of the presidential spotlight yields a coveted warmth in which to bask.

But as I thought about it I realized that Yasmina's disappointment was less personal, more profound, and more warranted. For President Obama had missed an opportunity to do what a president can do best, and perhaps what only a president can do, which is to tell the nation not only what it wants to know, but what it needs to know -- by making the connections we may not see ourselves, but of which the experts are acutely aware.

One of the president's principal themes was the need to address income inequality. In this regard he laid out prescriptions dealing with taxes, trade and manufacturing. But he either failed to see or lacked the courage to explain the role that hunger, poverty, nutrition, and early childhood development play in making Americans and America more competitive in the world.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, made this very point in a column earlier in the month, writing that "holes in the social safety net mean that both low-income mothers and their children are all too likely to suffer from poor nutrition and receive inadequate health care," and that what follows is poor performance in school and less likelihood of completing college. He concluded by asserting that "someone who really wanted equal opportunity would support more nutritional aid for low-income mothers-to-be and young children."

New studies in science and medicine conclusively demonstrate the critical developmental importance of a child's first years of life. Yet that is the period in which we invest the least. As Jonathan Cohn, a senior editor at The New Republic, wrote in December of 2011: "When it comes to early childhood, public policy is lagging far behind science -- with disastrous consequences." Cohn quotes the argument that James Heckman, another Nobel prize-winning economist, made to Congress: "We can gain money by investing early to close disparities and prevent achievement gaps, or we can continue to drive up deficit spending by paying to remediate disparities when they are harder and more expensive to close. The argument is very clear from an economic standpoint."

But that's not an argument the president was willing to make. Nationally televised State of the Union addresses have evolved into principally political exercises, especially in an election year. As such, they are aimed at those with political clout, with special emphasis on the middle class. That's why taxes, trade, and manufacturing featured so prominently in the president's remarks. Children in poverty, of whom there are now a record 16 million, do not fit into such a favored category. Sadly, their vulnerability and voicelessness are compounded when their president fails to make the connection we now know to exist among disparities in early childhood, the subsequent achievement gap, and ultimately rising inequality.

Which is why Yasmina and her Head Start colleagues may have been disappointed and legitimately so. In his speech, the president used the massive bail-out and subsequent turn-around of the auto industry as an example of how we can be successful in creating a built-to-last economy. Upon hearing that, it's hard not to imagine what we could do for our schools, economy and society with a similar investment in our children, if we only had the will.