Why earnings benefits of pre-K can be so large for the middle-class

My recent working paper on Tulsa’s pre-K program predicts that pre-K will increase the future earnings of both the poor and the middle class by similar dollar amounts.  (This paper, co-authored with Bill Gormley and Shirley Adelstein of Georgetown, can be found at the Upjohn Institute website or at the website of the Georgetown Center for Research on Children in the U.S.)

Why are predicted earnings effects for the middle-class so high? Our intuition might suggest that pre-K will have larger effects for children from low-income families.

The working paper does not explain the result, but there are some good reasons why pre-K might have large effects on children from middle-class families. First, even for middle-class families, a good pre-K program might enhance so-called “soft skills” or social skills. Many of these soft skills are important for future labor market success. Such soft skills might be difficult to enhance in early childhood through good parenting alone, without some social skills development in group settings such as a pre-K program.

Second, given the nature of the income distribution, even modest increases in educational attainment may have large effects for children from middle-class families. For example, as I explored in my book “Investing in Kids”, the dollar increase in earnings from attaining a college degree (versus a high school degree) is over twice the dollar increase in earnings from attaining a high school degree (versus being a high school dropout).  (See p. 229 of my book.) Therefore, even if pre-K affects a fewer percentage of middle class kids (compared to low-income kids) by increasing their educational attainment, it may have large dollar effects if it has larger effects on college degrees for the middle class group.

From an economic development standpoint, both investments in kids from low-income families, and investments in kids from middle-class families, can pay off.

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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