The environmentalists among us like to say.. “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago… The second best time is now.” This wise piece of advice can be applied to societies as well as to ecosystems. Here in the United States our social fabric is beginning to fail as the economic divide between rich and poor accelerates. We should have started twenty years ago to address our country’s growing disparity before it began to threaten the fabric of everyday life.

But we didn’t… and the second best time to start is now.

As a society, we can no longer afford to allow our children to be born into a culture where the zip code of birth so brutally dictates the course of a newborn’s life. The statistics are frightening. More than twenty percent of the children in the United States today live in poverty. Almost fifty percent of teenage children in many of our city high schools drop out before graduation. How can we let this happen?

Clearly, the American birthright of upward mobility is disappearing, and with it the enterprising dream that made the United States an inspiration to emerging societies throughout the world.

It’s time we assembled our best minds, our most brilliant technology, and all the commercial investment we can muster in a dedicated effort to meet the task ahead. Turning the American ship around will not be an easy job. And, very importantly, we need to get to the root causes of our problems. We need to invest in our most vulnerable children to make sure that they have the skills necessary to succeed as adults.

We should have started doing this work twenty years ago. We didn’t. There isn’t much time–or money– left to waste.