The politics of universal vs. targeted pre-k

As a previous post has outlined, there are some economic tradeoffs in deciding between a pre-k program with “universal access” for all 4-year-olds, versus a pre-k program that is more narrowly targeted at children from low-income families.  Targeting children from low-income families for pre-k costs less, and has higher benefits per dollar invested. On the other hand, targeted pre-k only benefits a small minority of all income groups. Universal pre-k benefits a majority of all income groups. Universal pre-k also increases the net economic development benefits of preschool, by expanding services to children from middle-class households who will have significant earnings benefits from expanded access to high-quality preschool.

Therefore, the economic arguments are mixed. What about the political merits of universal vs. targeted preschool? Which approach to preschool policy is likely to be more successful in sustaining high-quality preschool programs over time? Chapter 8 of my book Investing in Kids addresses this issue.

An argument for universal pre-k is that targeted programs in the U.S. tend not to sustain broad political support. According to Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, “When U.S. antipoverty efforts have featured policies targeted on the poor alone, they have not been politically sustainable.”

On the other hand, an argument against universal pre-k is that it subsidizes upper class families who do not need government aid. As Novel prize-winning economist James Heckman has argued, universal pre-k may create “an opposition group saying “Why should we subsidize affluent working women?””.

An “in-between” political argument is provided by Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. According to Greenstein, “targeted programs…are more likely to be strong politically when they serve low-income and moderate-income working families as well as the very poor….Advocates of new universal programs need to acknowledge the political difficulties posed by the large costs of such programs…”

I think it is apparent that the political strength of universal versus targeted pre-k will vary from state to state and over time. However, on the whole, I think the arguments for universal pre-k are more compelling. The political and economic benefits of expanding pre-k to the middle class seem to argue in favor of universal pre-k.

A possible fallback position is to have an “in-between” pre-k program that could be described as “broadly targeted” or “near universal”. Such a program would include the middle class as well as the poor, but take some steps to reduce program costs by reducing subsidies for the upper class. One way to try to do this is through sliding scale fees for preschool. I will consider the issue of preschool fees in a future post.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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One Response to The politics of universal vs. targeted pre-k

  1. Pingback: Political perceptions of pre-k | investinginkids

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