The political economy of early childhood programs

This lengthy series of posts on the income distribution effects of early childhood programs illustrates why some foundations, such as Pew, have been so interested in “universal” pre-k. The attraction is that universal pre-k potentially helps overcome some perceived limitations in macro effects and political sustainability of other initiatives in early childhood intervention.

Some highly targeted early childhood programs, such as the Nurse Family Partnership, may have modest costs. Unless the benefit-cost ratio for these programs is extraordinarily high, this also implies that the “macro” effects of these programs on the poor will be modest as well. Of course, we could combine a number of these programs to get larger effects. But then the combination of these programs will suffer some of the problems of more intensive targeted programs.

Targeted early childhood programs that are more intensive, such as the Abecedarian program, can have large effects in helping the poor.  Such programs may have benefits exceeding costs. However, these programs may have costs for the non-poor that are relatively large, but deliver relatively few direct economic benefits to the non-poor. (Of course, the programs may deliver more indirect benefits to the non-poor, such as reduced costs of crime and welfare.)

The political dilemma for targeted programs is that they either are too costly to be politically attractive, or insufficiently intense to have large effects on the problem. This dilemma could be overcome if we magically conjure up a program with extraordinary ratios of benefits to costs.  We could have large effects at modest costs if we could find an early childhood program with a benefit-cost ratio of 100 to 1. But although high-quality early childhood programs have benefits that are many multiples of costs, they are unlikely to reach such extraordinarily high ratios.

More universal programs, such as universal pre-k, have the political attraction that they may plausibly deliver some direct benefits to the non-poor.  In the case of universal pre-k, the data seem to suggest that the resulting distribution of benefits is still targeted on the poor. However, the benefits of universal pre-k are broadly enough spread that benefits exceed costs for the middle class. This provides economic as well as political reasons for broadening the program. Finally, because the poor still benefit the most, the resulting program is still reasonably highly targeted. The benefits are certainly much more targeted than policies, such as business incentives, that simply increase overall job growth.

The political and economic appeal of broadening program services still leaves room for much debate over exactly how to broaden services. Broadening services to the middle class may provide most of the extra political and economic support that is promised by “universality”.  Whether services should also be broadened to the upper class may depend more on the political context.

One issue is whether we can identify other early childhood interventions with sufficiently broad benefits that a well-designed program might want to serve the middle-class as well as the poor. For example, one wonders whether such broad benefits might be feasible for some parenting education programs.  My book, Investing in Kids, focuses on early childhood programs for which we have good evidence of long-term effects.  We should certainly continue to explore the potential long-term effects of other early childhood programs.  At the same time, we should explore how to change the political climate to develop greater support for more targeted approaches, even if these are expensive for the non-poor.

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.
This entry was posted in Business incentives, Distribution of benefits, Early childhood programs. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The political economy of early childhood programs

  1. cindy says:

    I’ve just finished reading all of your latest posts. I have to laugh to myself about all of your rationals in support of a universal program. When I think logically, I still ask myself, How do we intend to pay for these programs? Why do taxpayers have to foot the entire bill for a program that many can afford to pay for themselves? I don’t accept the argument there aren’t many affordable private programs out there. I’d say there are.

    In this economy, investing money into programs that MAY give a return on investment in 20-30 years is just ridiculous. We should be investing in programs that help those who are struggling, today – now. Provide people with heat, food, unemployment benefits, etc. Help the seniors today that are struggling. Invest in K-12 and early literacy programs.

    Georgia is now struggling with the reality of funding the UPK program. Follow this link.

    • timbartik says:

      Actually, my position is that it’s a tough call on whether to embrace universal vs. “broadly targeted” preschool programs that can include the middle class. There are pros and cons of universal vs. targeted programs.

      If the U.S. does not embrace investments with long-run returns, we are in for a great deal of trouble. There are many investments other than preschool whose returns are mostly long-term, for example infrastructure, basic scientific research, etc. Investment in these areas is essential to the long-term future of the U.S. economy.

      I’m not quite sure how you reconcile your call to “invest in K-12 and early literacy programs” with your position that “investing money into programs that MAY give a return on investment in 20-30 years is just ridiculous”. Actually, there’s more rigorous information on the long-term returns to pre-K than there is for the long-term returns to many aspects of how we spend money on K-12.

      Finally, the cost of universal pre-K nationwide is about $14 billion. This amounts to rounding error in the Medicare budget. Or to put it another way, it amounts to a per capita cost of about $40. And this cost could be reduced somewhat if we adopted fees for those who could afford to pay.

      • cindy says:

        According to NIEER, the cost is more like $33.8 billion. I believe we should improve on what we have by investing in K-12 and early literacy, not expand the scope and responsibility of our public education system to include childcare. There is just too much need out there and not enough money to cover it all.

  2. timbartik says:

    I assume NIEER is pricing something else. I am pricing the cost of a program that would pay for half-day school-year pre-k for 70% of all 4-year olds. You can get various costs for doing so based on your assumptions, but you are not going to get a cost anywhere close to $33.8 billion.

    “Universal” pre-k is not the same as “expand[ing] the scope and responsibility of our public education system to include childcare”. First, the program I am talking about is a half-day educational program for one school-year, not primarily a child care program.

    Second, such a program need not be run by the public education system. Public financing need not mean delivery by the public school system. As I have discussed in previous posts, a pre-k system could provide payments to private preschools, either through charter school arrangements or vouchers. For example, the private preschool you own could be funded under a universal pre-k system. As I understand it, New York State has not chosen to do so, but New York State’s choice of a delivery system should not be assumed to characterize all state universal pre-k systems around the U.S.

    • cindy says:

      NIEER’s explanation of pricing. 1/3 taking a half-day program only during the school year, 1/3 in a full day program during the school year, and 1/3 in a full-day program year round. This yields the following estimate for average cost across all children:

      .33 x $4,400 + .33 x $8,800 + .33 x 12,910 = $8,703 per child

      Multiplying the cost-per-child figure by the number of 3- and 4-year olds. (89 million 3-year olds and 3.99 million 4-year olds) yields $68.5 billion.

      The estimate assumes that all costs are borne by the public.

      According to UPK advocates, “Universal pre-k” means full day UPK for all 3 and 4 year old children in the nation,which ideally would include transportation. I don’t believe the above estimates include the price for transportation. This is quite different from the, “half-day educational program for one school-year, not primarily a child care program” you speak of.

      How can one year of 1/2 day preschool possibly override the life long environmental factors a child will experience the 13 years after preschool?

      Whether the program is provided by public institutions or private preschools isn’t the issue. The issue is the price tag of such a program and who should pay for it. The largest return on investment is seen when early childhood programs are targeted to those most in need.

      • cindy says:

        The initial $33.8 billion I spoke of was for all 4 year old children.
        The $68.5 billion is the estimate for all 3 and 4 year old children.

      • timbartik says:


        I started to reply to this, but then the reply became so lengthy that I turned it into a blog post. In brief, my response is: (1) universal pre-k for me includes a half-day program for 4 year olds; (2) this is mostly what states are doing, half-day programs for 4 year olds; (3) the evidence suggests that a half-day program for 4 year olds can work; (4) this effectiveness of a relatively brief program is probably due to how soft skills appreciate over time.

  3. Pingback: Does “universal pre-k” need to be a full-day, two-year program? | investinginkids

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