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A majority of poor, preschool-age children lack access to the health, nutrition and education services they need to get ready for elementary school, congressional investigators say in a report Thursday.

"Disadvantaged children, who are most likely to face difficulties upon entering school and who would benefit most from attending early childhood centers, are the least likely to attend them," the General Accounting Office said.According to the GAO, more than a third - 2.8 million - of U.S. 3- and 4-year-olds were from low-income families in 1990, an increase of 17 percent since 1980.

These children, the GAO said, often live in homes that provide little intellectual stimulation and inadequate health care and nutrition. Consequently, their development, including their preparation for elementary school, is undermined.

The GAO's analysis of the 1990 census showed that only about 35 percent of low-income children attended an early childhood program in 1989.

By contrast, 60 percent of children in high-income families - those that earned more than $63,370 for a family of four - attended an early childhood program, such as a preschool, nursery school or child-care center.

The researchers said lack of spaces and funding are reasons why more low-income children are not being served.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., who requested the study, said it "adds to the volumes of evidence about the dismal state of affairs for many young Americans."

"More and more American children are living in a sort of underdeveloped nation within our own borders," Dodd said.