But a scientific revolution that has taken place in the last decade or so illuminates a different way to address the dysfunctions associated with childhood hardship. This science suggests that many of these problems have roots earlier than is commonly understood—especially during the first two years of life. Researchers, including those of the Bucharest project, have shown how adversity during this period affects the brain, down to the level of DNA—establishing for the first time a causal connection between trouble in very early childhood and later in life. And they have also shown a way to prevent some of these problems—if action is taken during those crucial first two years.

The first two years, however, happen to be the period of a child’s life in which we invest the least. According to research by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, children get about half as many taxpayer resources, per person, as do the elderly. And among children, the youngest get the least. The annual federal investment in elementary school kids approaches $11,000 per child. For infants and toddlers up to age two, it is just over $4,000. When it comes to early childhood, public policy is lagging far behind science—with disastrous consequences.