Financing early childhood programs

John Merrow, a veteran education reporter for PBS and NPR, has an interesting recent blog post on preschool education. In this blog post, he accurately observes that despite much rhetorical support for early childhood education, our society has not been willing to commit the needed financial support on a large-enough scale. He then discusses how to finance the needed support, and says the following:

“Me, I would get rid of senior year of high school and spend that money where it will do a heck of a lot more good, on early education. (Maybe cut subsidies for corn, et cetera, and use those dollars as well.)

What would you do?”

What I would first do is recognize that the costs of these programs are modest. As I estimated in chapter 4 of my book Investing in Kids, the cost of universal pre-k education for 4-year olds would be about $47 per capita. (That is, the cost in a particular state or local area, or in the U.S. as a whole, divided by the population of that area, would be about $47.). The cost of the Nurse Family Partnership program at full-scale, with services for all eligible disadvantaged first-time mothers, would be about $12 per capita. Even a full-time child-care and preschool program for the first five years, similar to the Abecedarian program or Educare, would at full-scale, with all disadvantaged families served, amount to only $131 per capita.

Total governmental revenue (federal, state and local revenue) is about $15,000 per capita. (This is calculated using Tax Policy Center figures from 2008.) Even if we thought that the federal government has too many issues with budget deficits and health care reform to take on early childhood programs, total state and local government revenue is about $6,700 per capita. The cost of early childhood programs is just a tiny fraction of these amounts. All three of the above programs put together amount to $190 per capita, which is only 1.3% of total government revenue, and 2.8% of total state and local government revenue.

The point is that relatively modest adjustments in tax rates or tax breaks, or modest reforms in existing government services, suffice to provide the initial financing for even full-scale implementation of several early childhood programs. Viewed in this light, it becomes somewhat arbitrary what tweak one chooses to make in existing government activities to free up revenue for large-scale early childhood programs. It is not clear to me that it is politically advantageous to identify some specific budget reform that is arbitrarily designated to help finance early childhood programs.

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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