SOUTH PORTLAND — If you’re building a house, the first thing you do is lay down a foundation, and a lot of attention is paid to that foundation. If not done properly, windows and doors don’t shut completely. Floors slope and walls crack. A badly built foundation often will result in expensive home repairs later down the road.

The same is true for people. A lot goes into making healthy, productive adults. Our genes, our environments, our experiences and the relationships we have with our families and the people around us are the building blocks that make us who we are. Our early childhood experiences are the foundation upon which our adult successes, or failures, are built.

Without that foundation, the consequences are costly. Stressful environments and toxic relationships early in life are linked with bad outcomes – such as substance abuse, crime and unemployment – and the costly health care, law enforcement and welfare interventions that go along with them.

Our kids’ futures, and the collective prosperity of our state and our communities, depend on our ability to foster the well-being of our next generation, to build that solid foundation.

Unfortunately, too many Maine kids are being raised on the shaky foundation of poverty.

Maine’s child poverty rate has steadily increased over the past six years, resulting in 6,000 more kids living in poverty, bringing the total number to nearly 48,000. Not surprisingly, Maine dropped down five spots in one year in a national ranking of our children’s well-being.

Luckily, we know what it takes to ensure that even children experiencing poverty have the strong pillars of support they need to succeed in the future. Intervention in the form of early childhood programs such as pre-K can erase and even reverse the negative long-term effects of poverty.

Maine has begun to work on this issue. The Legislature enacted a law to establish universal voluntary pre-K in all school districts by the 2018-2019 school year and provided $4 million annually to help schools with startup costs associated with establishing new pre-K classrooms. The state leveraged its own investment, too, drawing down an additional $14.7 million in federal funds to expand pre-K programs in our state.

We also established preschool standards to ensure that pre-K programs were providing high-quality programming, not just the bare minimum. Those standards include restrictions on maximum class sizes, child-staff ratios, curriculum and screenings.

Our state’s commitment to pre-K is laudable, but no single program is a silver bullet. We know more must be done to ensure all Maine kids have a fair shot at success on a level playing field.

After all, there are many factors that can create uphill battles for our children – unstable family lives, limited access to quality health care and other issues can all hurt kids during their formative years. The high cost of child care, averaging $16,382 annually, also prevents many working parents from obtaining the best quality care they can for their children.

We need to do better.

That’s why I’m pleased to announce the creation of the Maine Children’s Caucus, a group of lawmakers dedicated to bipartisan, creative solutions to ensure our state has proven, solid policies to give all our kids a chance.

There are many good examples of states stepping up their leadership to strengthen our children’s early childhoods and build strong foundations.

Kansas‘ Family Engagement and Partnership Program recognizes how central family decisions and habits are to a child’s well-being and works to strengthen family-program connections and understanding. Washington state is making sure that everyone working with children shares common expectations and strategies through annual Starting Strong conferences. Alabama uses First Class Standards to ensure that all pre-K programs provide safe and high-quality learning environments.

The Maine Children’s Caucus, led by myself and state Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, will work to replicate successful approaches like those right here in Maine and develop approaches specific to Maine’s needs.

We know we’re not alone in this fight. We legislators have heard from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, police officers and even our nation’s military that good early childhood development is crucial to our state’s success, and our nation’s. We look forward to working with every willing partner to ensure every Maine child gets the right start in life.