The benefits of early childhood programs depend upon design

Melinda Wenner Moyer wrote a recent column in Slate on how U.S. day care affects kids. Her column provides a useful summary of the day care research. Day care has mixed effects relative to parental care: more positive if the day care is higher quality, the child is older, the family is lower income, and the focus is on cognitive rather than behavioral skills; more negative if the converse holds.

How can these findings be reconciled with the finding, also backed by research, that investing in high-quality early childhood programs has large benefits, not only for the child’s future, but for the local and national economies?

The key point is that the benefits of investing in early childhood programs depend crucially on the design of the programs that are being invested in.

For high-quality pre-K programs at ages 3 and 4, there is strong evidence that pre-K pays off in a better future for former child participants who come from families with a wide variety of income levels. Furthermore, quality pre-K seems to be deliverable at reasonable cost by state governments and local school districts. Quality pre-K requires significant but not extraordinary costs per child, and a good curriculum and good teachers, but not necessarily genius personnel. Such quality pre-K develops both “hard skills” (academic skills) and “soft skills” (behavior, character).

High-quality child care at ages less than 3 can also yield positive effects on child development. This was most rigorously demonstrated in the Abecedarian experiment, which provided high-quality child care and preschool from birth to age 5. (Abecedarian was quite similar in design to the current Educare program, which is promoted by the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and the Ounce of Prevention Fund.)

However, high-quality child care at ages less than 3 probably provides the greatest child development benefits to children from low-income families. The Abecedarian experiment was restricted to such families. The Infant Health and Development Program (IHDP) provided services similar to the Abecedarian program from ages 1 to 3. Research suggests that IHDP services provide much larger benefits for children from low-income families.

Of course, child care is also intended to provide parents with the ability to work or attend school. Such parental benefits are also important to both parents and the broader society and economy. Parental benefits probably occur for families from a wide variety of income groups.  Therefore, it is not obvious that expanded support for high-quality child care should be limited to low-income families.

Parenting programs also seem to provide greater benefits for children from low-income families. The Nurse Family Partnership has some of the most rigorous evidence for the benefits of home visiting services that seek to improve parenting. Research on NFP suggests its benefits are greater for children from more disadvantaged families.

Finally, the greatest concerns about the impacts of early child care are for infants of less than one year of age or less than six months of age.  If this care is of low quality, and the family is more advantaged, there is some indication that such low-quality care may contribute to some early behavioral issues.

What is going on here? The key is what early childhood programs are providing relative to what families are able to provide on their own. Quality pre-K provides services that are difficult for most families to substitute for with their own resources. Such services including learning social skills and learning cognitive skills in a group setting. In contrast, low-quality child care for infants provides interactions with children that many more advantaged families may be able to provide just as well or better on their own.  (Of course, these advantaged parents may not be able to provide such services to their children and still keep the advantages of working or going to school.)

I think the policy implications of this analysis are straightforward. Public support for pre-K programs with broad access seems sensible. This should be coupled with subsidies to help support higher-quality child care services, particularly for low-income families.  As Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic has highlighted, there are serious problems with the quality of much of U.S. child care. Higher-quality child care will help child development in low-income families, while helping parents in all families. In addition, we should expand research-proven parenting programs such as NFP for low-income families. In summary: universality for pre-K, soft targeting for child care, hard targeting for parenting programs; quality for all programs.

As Magnuson and Waldfogel have recently argued, we should also consider income support to parents with young children as part of early childhood policy. Research by Duncan and others has shown that adult outcomes for children are particularly sensitive to their parents’ income when the child was less than age 5.  Public policies that can increase jobs and earnings, or provide income supplements, to low-income families with young children, can have high benefit-cost ratios because of their benefits for child development and the child’s future.

The details of early childhood policy matter.  Universality is most strongly justified for pre-K programs. Parenting programs should probably be targeted at low-income families. Child care programs are likely to have the most child development benefits for low-income families, although all families may reap benefits for parents. In achieving the benefits of all these types of early childhood programs, quality is the key.  Our support should be for expanding quality pre-K programs and quality child care programs, not for simply expanding any early childhood program. And helping children may sometimes be done best by policies that directly help the incomes of their parents rather than by providing services directly to the children.

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 The benefits of early childhood programs depend upon design

  1. Phil Gordon says:

    I am surprised by your conclusion:
    “And helping children may sometimes be done best by policies that directly help the incomes of their parents rather than by providing services directly to the children.” Though I agree working with the parents rather than children is key, is focus on parental income really your intention? If so you are in sharp contrast to James Heckman’s conclusion “… both cognitive and socio-emotional skills develop in early childhood, and their development depends on the family environment. But family environments in the United States have deteriorated over the past 40 years. A growing fraction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families, where disadvantage is most basically a matter of the quality of family life and only secondarily measured by the number of parents, their income, their education levels. And that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations. -James Heckman, Giving Kids a Fair Chance (A Strategy that Works), page 4. Or “The proper measure of disadvantage is not necessarily family poverty or parental education. The available evidence suggests that the quality of parenting is the important scarce resource. So we need better measures of risky family environments in order to achieve more accurate targeting. ” page 35, ibid

    • timbartik says:

      Perhaps I’ve inartfully phrased what I mean. What I mean is that child outcomes improve if we increase the income of low-income families. They also improve if we provide high-quality early childhood education programs. The two policies should be seen as complementary policies, not substitutes, at least at the aggregate level. (At an individual level, there might be families for which what is really needed is just an income boost, whereas other families won’t benefit from that, but rather need ECE. I suspect different policies are effective for different families. )

      I wrote a previous post on Greg Duncan’s findings:

      In essence, Duncan’s findings imply that for every dollar spent increasing the income of low-income families with kids less than age 5, the present value of the child’s future earnings might go up somewhere between $1 and $3. ECE can have higher benefit-cost ratios than that. But why do we have to choose? Why not do both?

      Why do child outcomes improve if we increase income of parents with children less than 5? Because this reduces a wide variety of stresses associated with poverty, such as evictions from housing, to which children less than 5 are especially vulnerable.

      So, I don’t know whether Heckman would disagree, but I think that just increasing income of some families with under five year olds would improve their family environment. But if we want to really boost the child’s future prospects, we would combine that income boost with ECE policies such as high quality pre-K.

      Does boosting income of low income families always work? Probably not. But then ECE doesn’t always work either. People are complicated, and even high-quality interventions don’t always affect the child’s life course.

  2. Phil Gordon says:

    Thanks for the clarification. Lessening the stresses of poverty probably acts in large part through the parents. Under less stressful conditions parents are more available to nurture their children. I suspect we agree that higher quality parenting is complementary with higher quality early childhood education programs. Rather than an either or we need both.

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