It's 2011, do we know where our priorities are?

Happy New Year! 2011 started with a bang for DC Action for Children. We are feeling reinvigorated, excited and positively fizzy about the year ahead -- and we've already gotten a running start and have been very busy  (hence please excuse the fact that my first post of the year is five days late!).

Our resolution for 2011 is to recommit ourselves to our mission of ensuring that all children in the District of Columbia have the opportunity to reach their full potential. And that means we must constantly push for policy change and innovative programs and approaches that improve conditions for all children, youth and families in our city.

Yes, there are huge challenges ahead, including another looming budget gap for the District. I am not trying to be flip when I say that we are feeling positive and energized. We have to stay on point, stay loose and keep our heads in the game if we are going to achieve our mission in this environment. Yesterday a colleague and I attended a luncheon panel at the Urban Institute on the challenges facing Mayor Gray and the city. It was a very interesting discussion that touched on the District's financial condition, the housing crisis, unemployment, health and human services and public safety.

And the message -- would you believe it -- is that things are not nearly as bad as we might be led to believe by, say, reading the Post. Sure, the District is in financial straits, but so is every city and state in our country, and many large cities are much, much worse off than than us. Hello, Detroit? Cleveland? Baltimore?

To quote one of the panelists, Alice Rivlin, director of the Brookings Institution's Greater Washington Research  program and the first head of the Congressional Budget Office as well as a former director of the White House Office of Management and Budget -- she knows budgets ---  "D.C.'s fiscal challenges are actually managable... there's hardly any other city you'd rather be." Of course, we have our unique constraints, such as being a city-"state" with no representation in Congress or budget autonomy, but we are also the center of the federal government and the engine of one of the most fertile economic regions in the country.

My hope is that the District starts to think of itself -- and act -- like the nation's capital. We need to do better by our children and we can. We cannot ignore the fact that one in three children in our city live in poverty. The current contraints will force us to innovate and look critically at waste, as well as what works, when it comes to public investments in our future.

Valerie Strauss at the Post started the New Year with an angry column that proclaimed that "Americans don't really think very much of their children," citing all the budget cuts to public education, among other things. I know where she was coming from, but I respectfully disagree. I think Americans care a great deal about their children. I just think we don't always think. And in particular, we don't think enough about consequences. We think too much in terms of short-term fixes and gratification, and not enough about our future. And that needs to change.

For a primer on why public investments in early childhood make good economic sense, check out this new report from Voices for America's Children: Early Learning Left Out. It explains in compelling fashion why building an early childhood system is critical to securing America's future.