point of view

'We must be sure to protect our most precious asset -- our children, our future workers," Gov. Beverly Perdue said during her State of the State address.

Like Perdue, many state and national leaders recognize investments in children are an essential piece of any economic recovery effort. But in order for these investments to pay off, they must begin at the same time the education process does -- at birth. The research on this is unequivocal.

Have you ever seen a picture of a young child's brain? The brain of a child who has had positive early childhood experiences looks different from one who has not. The structure and wiring are visibly and significantly different. That's not ideology; that's science.

Science also shows that children's development is influenced by much more than their families. The environments in which they live and the relationships they have with neighbors, caregivers and other adults have a direct effect on how their brains develop.

When we do not invest in our youngest children, we all pay the much higher costs of more children requiring special education and more adults who are under-employable, unemployable or incarcerated. For those who think that's not their problem, it will be their children paying the economic price. Not to mention that it is today's children who will need to be earning enough money in 20 years to fund Social Security and Medicare for many of us.

The notion that you can save money by cutting these programs just doesn't add up. One way or another, we'll all pay. We can either do it now, when it costs significantly less and is most beneficial to our children, or do it later, when it costs significantly more and is much less effective.

Unfortunately, under budget mandates designed by the previous governor, North Carolina has taken the latter approach. A quarter of the cuts from the Department of Health and Human Services in the current fiscal year so far came directly from programs for young children. And we know if some members of the General Assembly have their way, more is to come. If that happens, North Carolina will go from being a leader in early childhood programs to the back of line.

But these choices will affect more than just our standing in the early childhood field; we will suffer in lost prosperity. Economists now recognize that investments in young children are one of the strongest investments for sustained growth and job creation.

The key to ensuring healthy development and growth is early childhood experiences. Anyone who heard Dr. Jack Shonkoff speak at a policy forum recently in Raleigh heard firsthand that the science on this is indisputable.

Shonkoff, founding director of Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child and co-editor of the groundbreaking report "From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development," explained that all children are born "ready to learn" and that the earliest years of infancy determine the architecture, the actual structure, of the brain.

Significant adversity impairs development in the first three years. Young children exposed to the intense and prolonged stress associated with cyclical or generational poverty, military deployment, sudden parental unemployment and similar conditions require comprehensive intervention to ensure their healthy and productive development. Shonkoff also said that well-targeted, research-based early childhood interventions are proven to deliver both lifelong, participant outcomes and long-term taxpayer savings.

Investments in young children are a sure thing. The science has already proven that. And as Shonkoff said, "Once you know what we know about brain development, how do you morally walk away? From an investment standpoint, how do you walk away from something that will cost you down the road?"

We cannot let North Carolina walk away.