I recently testified about early childhood programs before a state legislative committee. One of the representatives asked a subsequent witness a question, whose gist was as follows:
Wouldn’t it be better and cheaper to address parenting rather than spending all this government money to expand preschool? Isn’t parenting the real issue that needs to be addressed?
I didn’t have an opportunity to answer this question at the hearing. So I will use this blog post to respond.
As part of a comprehensive early childhood package of services, it would wise to include programs to improve parenting. However, it is not easy to improve parenting through cheap and small interventions. Rather, the parenting programs with the most rigorous evidence of effects require extensive personal intervention with parents over many hours, and considerable planning and expertise.
For example, the parenting program with the most rigorous evidence of success is the Nurse Family Partnership. NFP provides first-time disadvantaged mothers with one-on-one support from nurses from the pre-natal period until the child is age 2. NFP’s costs per family assisted are over $10,000 over this 2.5 year intervention.
Despite these high costs, the benefits of NFP significantly exceed costs. In my book, Investing in Kids, I estimate the local economic development benefits of NFP, in increased earnings per capita, to be about twice program costs. Benefits are even higher if one counts the benefits of reduced future crime rates of the children from NFP-assisted families.
However, high-quality parenting education programs are not cheap. In particular, these programs are not cheap compared to preschool. For example, one year of half-day high-quality preschool probably costs about half as much as NFP. The evidence suggests that even such a time-limited preschool program will have sizable local economic development benefits and other benefits.
In addition, as of right now, it appears that parenting education programs are of most significant benefit for the most disadvantaged families. For example, for NFP, the research suggests that the program has much lower net benefits for more advantaged families.
In contrast, high-quality preschool appears to produce similar test score gains for low-income children and middle-class children. These broader benefits mean that high-quality preschool can have benefits exceeding costs even when expanded to a larger, more universal scale.
A broader point is that parenting education and preschool programs should not be seen as supplements, but as complements. We should try to improve parenting. The best preschool programs should include a parent involvement and education component. But in addition, we need to provide the “soft skills” or social skills that high-quality preschool is able to provide in group settings. It is difficult for even the best parents to provide on their own, without any preschool, some social skills that are most effectively provided in group settings.
It is always tempting to believe that social problems have one single, cheap solution. However, the reality is that most difficult social problems require a variety of assistance programs. The individuals that are assisted will require many contact hours with the programs, and the programs will have to have skilled staff and a good program curriculum. All of this means that to maximize government efficiency, you should avoid being “penny wise but pound foolish”. In many cases, the interventions with the highest net economic and social benefits will require considerable costs per child.