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The Best Thing We Could Do About Inequality Is Universal Preschool

by Emily Badger

We've repeatedly seen that the urban problems of poverty, crime, unemployment, education gaps and inequality are intertwined. They reinforce and feed off of each other: A child of parents who never went to college is less likely to go to college herself. Her educational development influences her employment prospects and the money she's likely to make over her lifetime. And the clustering of poverty in whole parts of town threatens to cut her children off from access to good schools and healthy neighborhoods.

A growing body of research over the past decade, though, suggests that one intervention in particular could have cascading effects on all of these seemingly intractable challenges: Get to children as young as possible, and you can change not only their life trajectories, but also the income inequality, social mobility (and tax revenues) of the places where they live. This doesn't mean spending more per student in struggling high schools, or giving rehabbed computers to second-graders. It means reaching low-income children by the time they're 3, or even younger. It means putting them in high-quality preschool.

Put a child in preschool, and that improves her chances of graduating college.

The latest research, from a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by James Heckman and Lakshmi Raut, concludes that a policy of free preschool for all poor children would have a raft of cost-effective benefits for society and the economy: It would increase social mobility, reduce income inequality, raise college graduation rates, improve criminal behavior (saving some of the societal expenses associated with it), and yield higher tax revenue thanks to an increase in lifetime wages.

Specifically, Heckman and Raut estimate that the percentage of children whose parents never graduated from college who go on to graduate themselves would rise from 6.71 percent to 9.45 percent. And such a preschool policy would reduce the percent of the population that falls in the long run into poor socioeconomic status, from 35.71 percent to 29.14 percent. (Heckman and Raut define poor socioeconomic status as families earning less than 70 percent of the average in the economy.)

Keep such a policy in place for years, and its benefits accrue from one generation to the next. Put a child in preschool, in other words, and that improves her chances of graduating college. But it also improves the future education and earnings prospects of her children and grandchildren. Obviously, the quality of a school that a child attends later in life matters, too. And we'd be foolish to invest in preschool without continuing to invest in poor children as they age.

But this mounting evidence suggests that we should be front-loading our investment in the most disadvantaged children during the ages 2-4, when their brains develop at an extremely high rate, and while they're learning social, motivational, cognitive and analytical skills. Preschool is when kids first learn to work together in teams, to resolve problems, to listen and cooperate – all skills that directly come into play in the workforce. And the earlier society in invests in children, the greater the return we get. As Heckman has previously explained:

Life cycle skill formation is dynamic in nature. Skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation. Motivation cross-fosters skill, and skill cross-fosters motivation. If a child is not motivated to learn and engage early on in life, the more likely it is that when the child becomes an adult, he or she will fail in social and economic life. The longer society waits to intervene in the life cycle of a disadvantaged child, the more costly it is to remediate disadvantage.

Earlier research by Heckman and others has calculated that every dollar invested in quality early childhood development yields a 7 to 10 percent return, per child per year, including even younger than preschool. Plot society's policy options on a graph, and they look like this, via Heckman:

"The Case for Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children,"
 by J. Heckman.

In total, previous research [PDF] has concluded that about half of the inequality in lifetime earnings is due to factors that were determined by the time children turn 18.

The results from this latest study likely underestimate the full benefit that could come from modern preschool programs modeled, for example, on the Perry Child Development Centerthat has been touted as a blueprint by the Obama Administration. Heckman and Raut modeled their results on the findings of a series of longitudinal studies that followed children who attended private preschool in the late 1960s.

This idea would go well beyond what the government currently provides for Head Start (where the quality of the programs relative to enriched pilots is often poor, Heckman and Raut write, and where the long-term results have been mixed). The Obama Administration's own proposal – which involves raising $75 billion from higher tobacco taxes – sounds like a long shot in Washington. But all of this mounting evidence suggests that universal preschool would be a tremendously rational investment by society.

Imagine one solution that simultaneously addresses so many problems, particularly at a time when more children are being born into disadvantage in the U.S. than were just two generations ago.

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