01/04/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Pigtail Stimulus Package

Any economic stimulus package will necessarily involve significant new investments in concrete and steel - roads and bridges - as well as public school renovation and green technology installation. Policymakers shouldn't overlook one other important economic investment: the kind involving pigtails and jelly-smudged cheeks.

Putting dollars toward our youngest Americans, those aged birth to five, also creates immediate jobs. At the same time it builds a longer-lasting economic future, by ensuring that our most at-risk children grow up better prepared to thrive in school and become more productive, law-abiding, tax-paying adults. The ultimate beneficiaries, of course, are employers, communities and families. And the economy.

Every $1 billion invested in Head Start, for example, creates as many as 22,000 new jobs, according to the National Head Start Association. Research shows other direct economic effects of investing in quality early education in those earliest years: a savings of as much as 50 percent in special education costs, as well as lower spending on crime, grade retention and remedial education.

A growing chorus of economists, business leaders and scientific researchers agree quality early childhood services stands among the wisest possible use of public dollars, with return on investment estimated as high as $16 for every $1 invested.

The current stimulus package is the time to begin preparing for those returns. By increasing the number of low-income children and families participating in effective early childhood programs, the administration and Congress can demonstrate its intent to ensure at-risk children thrive and grow into productive adults - adults who will benefit society as a whole.

In the past seven years, investment has been frozen in Head Start, Early Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, leading to a multi-billion dollar loss in inflation-adjusted terms. Today, less than three percent of eligible infants and toddlers receive Early Head Start services.

Because of this inattention to children, and because too many families have slipped into poverty, with more likely on the way under the current economic climate, we can't continue to overlook the most vulnerable Americans now.

Inclusion in any stimulus package of dollars for early care and learning programs would not just be for needy children and their families. Just like putting money into building highways, investing in quality early learning fundamentally strengthens our country's future.