Does early childhood education solve all problems? No, but it is a catalytic investment

David Brooks’s New York Times column of January 24, 2014 reflects a common misunderstanding about how to approach difficult policy issues. In discussing how to “expand opportunity for underprivileged children”, he says that we’ve made the following mistake:

“We’ve probably placed too much emphasis on early education. Don’t get me wrong. What happens in the early years is crucial. But human capital development takes a generation. If you really want to make an impact, you’ve got to have a developmental strategy for all the learning stages, ages 0 to 25.”

This is mostly wrong. Early childhood education investments by themselves, with no other change in public policy, make a “real impact”. Abecedarian/Educare child care/preschool from ages 0 to 5 is estimated to raise the future adult earnings of disadvantaged children by over 25%. Perry Preschool raised adult earnings by 19%. Estimates suggest that the adult earnings boost for disadvantaged children from the Chicago Child-Parent Center pre-K program is 8%, from Tulsa pre-K is 10%, and from Boston pre-K is 15%.

Therefore, we have not placed “too much emphasis on early education”. Rather, we have underinvested, because all these early childhood programs have future benefits, not only in increased adult earnings, but in lower crime, lower remedial education costs, and lower social welfare costs, that are many multiples of their investment costs.

It would cost around $30 billion in additional annual spending to offer voluntary universal pre-K to all 4-year olds. It would cost around $60 billion in additional spending to offer all children in poverty under the age of 5 with high-quality child-care and preschool from birth to age 5. In contrast, the latest appropriations bill provides about $1.4 billion in additional annual investments in early care and education. $1.4 billion is clearly a step forward, but in a country the size of the U.S., and given the evidence of the benefits of expanded early investments, it is nowhere near as large as is justified by the empirical evidence.

It is true that full investment in early childhood programs would not solve all problems of poverty and income inequality.  If we interpret Mr. Brooks as just saying that we need to consider a wide variety of policies to tackle the challenges of childhood poverty, how could anyone quarrel with that? We need to consider how to improve K-12 schools, how to improve parenting, how to create more jobs and more income for lower income parents, and so on.

But the art of public policy analysis is finding some way out of the sense of futility that occurs if we believe that no difficult problem can be significantly addressed without doing everything at once. If only comprehensive strategies will make a real difference, then in the real world, complex social problems have no real solution, because policymakers are seldom likely to in one fell swoop adopt a comprehensive strategy.

What we need to find are solutions that play a key catalytic role, which by themselves will have a high bang for the buck, a high benefit-cost ratio. Early childhood education is one such catalytic investment. We then can proceed incrementally, building on success to add other programs and strategies that can make a difference. That incremental strategy of going from one catalytic investment to another is something that policymakers can do, and that has real hope as a political and social strategy for success.

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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