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.