Philosophical objections to early childhood programs, part 2: are early childhood programs unfair to the more competitive parents?

I am considering various philosophical objections to early childhood programs. This topic is explored in chapter 11 of Investing in Kids. Yesterday, I considered the issue of excessive governmental control over parental choice. Today, I consider whether early childhood programs are unfair to parents who are already successfully using all their resources to help their children succeed in life.

Consider the philosophical argument made by well-known conservative author Dinesh D’Souza:

“I have a five-year-old daughter. Since she was born—actually, since she was conceived—my wife and I have gone to great lengths in the Great Yuppie Parenting Race … Why are we doing these things? We are, of course, trying to develop her abilities so that she can get the most out of life. The practical effect of our actions, however, is that we are working to give our daughter an edge—that is, a better chance to succeed than everybody else’s children … “

“Now, to enforce equal opportunity, the government could do one of two things: it could try to pull my daughter down, or it could work to raise other people’s children up. The first is clearly destructive and immoral, but the second is also unfair. The government is obliged to treat all citizens equally. Why should it work to undo the benefits that my wife and I have labored so hard to provide? Why should it offer more to children whose parents have not taken the trouble?”

I think Mr. D’Souza more bluntly expresses what is behind some people’s objections to government support for early childhood programs.

What response can be made to this objection?  First, one might ask about what is fair from the perspective of the child. Is it fair that some children may be handicapped from the start of life? These handicaps may be not simply due to “parents…not [taking] the trouble”. The parents may be dead, or may face such severe poverty problems that it is difficult to fully meet their children’s needs.

Second, helping children from disadvantaged families need not impose costs on the Yuppie parents. Mr. D’Souza seems to be implicitly using a model in which the number of good jobs in America is fixed.  But this is untrue.

If the quantity and quality of the American labor supply improves, more and better jobs will be created. Mr. D’Souza should have more faith in the ability of the private economy to respond to expanded labor supply. The empirical evidence supports this belief that employers will respond to an improvement in labor supply. As a result, if the children of the disadvantaged are provided with better supports during early childhood, the entire economy will expand, and Mr. D’Souza and other Yuppie parents will not lose out.

In fact, the Yuppie parents and their children may gain from help for the children of the disadvantaged.  High-quality early childhood programs can reduce crime and welfare costs, and increase tax revenue, thus providing both fiscal benefits and quality-of-life benefits for the upper class.

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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3 Responses to Philosophical objections to early childhood programs, part 2: are early childhood programs unfair to the more competitive parents?

  1. diana says:

    The key is high quality programs. I don’t think we will be able to provide the same quality early education program to all children in different parts of the country. Most objections are based on personal experience . Others may just not care if current poor education hasn’t impacted them. We are all taxpayers and we should have choices. Or, somehow, get better teachers out to all parts of the nation.
    Why not employ ‘master’ teachers online and educate each child in his or her home or other less expensive center. (who wouldn’t want to have Bill Nye the science guy teach them–and then employ tutors if needed..this could be developed. (I’ve met too many home schoolers to know that socialization is not a problem–students could always meet for sports that too many schools focus on).
    We need to think of the future when parents will be working from home and kids will be taking college credits online in elementary school.

    • timbartik says:

      Thank you for your comment, Diana.

      I agree that we need to have high-quality programs. However, I think that it is feasible for typical school districts or typical state governments to implement such programs if there is sufficient funding and some attention to critical details such as a good curriculum, reasonable class sizes, and salaries sufficient to attract and retain good teachers.

      As I have outlined in previous posts, studies suggest that preschool programs run in diverse places such as Oklahoma, New Jersey, West Virginia, New Mexico, Michigan, and Chicago Public Schools have all shown good effects.

      I don’t think I agree with you that socialization is not a problem in relying solely on on-line education. Many of the long-term benefits of high-quality preschool appear to be due to its effects on “soft skills”, as outlined in a previous post. These soft skills include not only “socialization”, but dealing with teachers, and developing abilities to plan and defer gratification in a group setting.

  2. Pingback: Why should someone support investing in “other people’s children”? | investinginkids

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