MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Investing in Our Other Infrastructure

This month, Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill, providing long-awaited vital investments in buildings, roads, bridges, utilities, broadband, climate change mitigation and more. These investments will be a key foundation for our nation’s future economic growth. But in order to build a strong foundation for our economy, we also must invest in a strong foundation for all our children to be able to succeed in school and life and contribute to our nation’s long-term success. Congress must follow the successful passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill by advancing the Build Back Better Act and investing in our human infrastructure — our children and families.

Investing in our children is essential and must start at the very beginning, because we know whether or not children will have a strong foundation is in large part determined by the social and physical environments in which they grow up. The first five years of a child’s life are the time of greatest brain development. If young children’s basic needs are met by consistent, nurturing interactions with loving adults, they are far more likely to meet their full potential. Parents must be able to go to work feeling secure in the knowledge that their children are in safe, nurturing environments that support their development. But the United States has never made the essential investments to support young children and families after the seismic shift from families with one full-time caregiver to the current reality of many two parent working families and single working parents with young children.

Our early childhood infrastructure is in dire need of repair. Providing a high-quality continuum of early childhood development and learning opportunities is not only the right thing to do but the smart thing to do. Provisions in the latest Build Back Better Act will help build the sound foundation young children need, including investments in universal pre-K, expansion of quality and affordable child care, and new parental supports. When more than 80 percent of two child families pay more for child care than rent, help with high-quality child care and early childhood education will lead to stronger outcomes for children in need.

The Build Back Better Act currently includes other generational investments to boost families’ economic stability and reduce racial inequities in income, housing, education and health care that disproportionately impact Black, Latino and Indigenous children. They include a temporary one-year extension of the improved Child Tax Credit (CTC) and permanent refundability to ensure families with little or no income remain eligible; more funding for rental assistance, school meals and summer grocery benefits; and permanent funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). All these investments will give significantly more children a healthy start, a head start, a fair start and a safe start in life.

Our nation must give all children what they need to survive and thrive. Congress must continue to pursue every option to ensure children and families’ economic security, health and well-being. Investing in children is not a national luxury or a choice but a national necessity.

Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.