VoxEU Column Education Poverty and Income Inequality

Early childhood education and social mobility

Adverse early childhood environments can have persistent effects. This column suggests that early childhood programmes have many beneficial effects, and their success should be evaluated on a multitude of outcomes. The returns to investing in the early lives of disadvantaged children in terms of social mobility and economic productivity are high – comparable to returns on equity investment.

Substantial gaps between the environments of advantaged and disadvantaged children raise serious concerns about the state of social mobility in America (Putnam 2015). The effects of adverse early childhood environments persist over a lifetime (Knudsen et al. 2006). High-quality early childhood education programmes enrich the nurturing and learning environments of disadvantaged children. An accumulating body of evidence shows their beneficial effects.

The effects of early childhood programmes on disadvantaged children

The evidence from a variety of high-quality early childhood programmes, for which reported results can be replicated by objective analysts, tells a consistent story. They have substantial effects on life outcomes beyond IQ or achievement test scores that are the focus of attention in popular discussions of public policy. They promote physical and mental health, reduce criminal activity, and boost earnings and social engagement. The economic and social rates of return are high – comparable to returns on equity investment.

The evidence from a broad range of studies using rigorous causal methodologies shows agreement across them. There is a strong case for high-quality early childhood education for disadvantaged children. It improves the early-life environments of disadvantaged children, which in turn boost a variety of early-life skills and later-life achievements. They have substantial economic and social rates of return.

On average, the children of affluent families do not benefit from the public provision of early childhood education aimed at disadvantaged populations. Any benefit to affluent families comes from receipt of childcare, which subsidises the employment of parents, sometimes at the expense of child quality.1

The evidence supports public subsidy of high-quality programmes targeted to disadvantaged populations. At current quality levels and costs, their social benefits greatly exceed their social costs. The economic and social case for universal early programmes for promoting childhood development is weak.

Evaluating programmes on a multitude of outcomes

Early childhood programmes should be evaluated using a full range of skills that enable children to become more productive adults. Many analysts equate programme effectiveness with performance on short-term measures of cognition that poorly predict life success (Borghans et al. 2015). Socio-emotional skills – such as attentiveness, impulse control, sociability, and conscientiousness – are primary drivers of achievement, health, and increased social and economic productivity. Unfortunately, these skills often go unmeasured.

Demonstration programmes, such as the Perry Preschool Project and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, provide valuable information on the effects of early education, because they measure socio-emotional skills in youth and collect data on education, employment, health, and criminal activity through adulthood. Evaluations of these programmes show favourable effects on high school graduation, long-term employment, and reduced criminal activity.2 There are also beneficial effects on health and healthy behaviours. Both programmes have high rates of return.3 The Perry Preschool Project measures life outcomes through age 40. It has a benefit-cost ratio of 6.6 and an annual rate of return per dollar invested of 7.7%. Analysis of adult outcomes at age 35 for the Abecedarian Project shows substantial benefits on health and rates of return above those of the Perry Programme (Elango et al. 2015b).

These long-term impacts persist despite fadeout of childhood IQ and scores of cognition that receive so much attention in public policy debates. Socio-emotional skills explain a substantial part of these impacts – much more so than cognitive skills.4

Evaluating a programme’s effectiveness

Programme effectiveness depends strongly on programme quality, the characteristics of those being served, and the access of their children to alternative programmes. Programmes that provide disadvantaged families with access to high-quality early childcare on average are better and more effective than the home care they receive.

Head Start has positive impacts on long-term outcomes

As the supply and quality of public and private early childhood education programmes has grown, evaluations of contemporary programmes face a serious problem: participation of control children in alternative programmes (Heckman et al. 2000, Kline and Walters 2014). Evaluations of programmes using control groups that participate in alternative programmes do not accurately measure the effectiveness of programmes in improving child outcomes compared to staying at home, although they are often interpreted as doing so. Head Start is the most prominent federal early childhood investment in the US. It is often held up as the litmus test for whether governments can successfully scale programmes. Unfortunately, the reported effects of a recent influential experimental evaluation of Head Start are widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. The Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) randomly assigned children into two groups: Head Start and a control group.5 The control group includes children who attend other preschools – often a neighbouring Head Start programme. This amounts to comparing two identical programmes and finding no programme effect. The HSIS experiment badly underestimated the impact of Head Start compared to home care.

Evaluations of Head Start that account for the contamination of the control group show positive effects of Head Start on cognition and school achievement compared to what would be achieved if children stay at home. Studies of Head Start that examine long-term impacts find favourable results on college attendance, criminal activity, and health outcomes including reductions in obesity and depression. This research adds to the body of evidence that supports the effectiveness of early education for disadvantaged children.

Provision of early childhood education is both socially fair and economically efficient

Methodologically strong evidence from programmes that serve disadvantaged children presents a compelling case for funding targeted programmes. The evidence is less compelling of any benefit of publically funding early childhood education at the level currently targeted to disadvantaged children on the lives of advantaged children. The available evidence indicates that universal programmes positively affect disadvantaged children. The evidence is mixed for advantaged children because many affluent families primarily use early childhood programmes to provide childcare for working parents and not to boost child development.6

A proper measure of disadvantage

Disadvantage in early childhood is not just a matter of financial income flows, but also depends on the quality of time parents can spend with their children and the parenting resources they can allocate for early development. Single parenting greatly diminishes the time and resources that can be devoted to early childhood development. Today’s economic pressures force poor and middle-income parents alike to spend time away from their children to make ends meet. The demand for quality early childhood education is intensifying, the costs are increasing, and many more parents will find themselves without the means to provide it. Those most in need should receive help. Investing in the early lives of disadvantaged children promotes social mobility and is economically productive.


Baker, M, J Gruber, and K Milligan (2005, December), “Universal Childcare, Maternal Labor Supply, and Family Well-Being,” NBER Working Paper 11832.

Baker, M, J Gruber, and K Milligan (2008, August), “Universal Child Care, Maternal Labor Supply, and Family Well-Being,” Journal of Political Economy 116(4), 709-745.

Baker, M, J Gruber, and K Milligan (2015, September), “Non-cognitive Deficits and Young Adult Outcomes: The Long-Run Impacts of a Universal Child Care Program,” NER Working Paper 21571.

Borghans, L, B H H Golsteyn, J J Heckman, and J E Humphries (2015), “What Do Grade and Achievement Tests Measure?” Unpublished Manuscript, University of Chicago and Maastricht University.

Cascio, E U and D W Schanzenbach (2013), “The Impacts of Expanding Access to High-Quality Preschool Education,” NBER Working Paper 19735.

Conti, G, J J Heckman, and R Pinto. (2015), “The Long-Term Health Effects of Early Childhood Interventions,” University of Chicago,Forthcoming, Economic Journal.

Elango, S, J L García, A Hojman, and J J Heckman (2015a), “Early Childhood Education,” Forthcoming, in Moffitt, Robert (ed.), Means-Tested Transfer Programs in the United States II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Elango, S, J L García, J J Heckman, A Hojman, D Ermini, M J Rados, J Shea, and J C Torcasso (2015b), “The Internal Rate of Return and the Benefit-Cost Ratio of the Carolina Abecedarian Project,” Unpublished Manuscript, University of Chicago, Department of Economics.

García, J L, and J J Heckman (2014), “Ability, Character, and Social Mobility,” Unpublished Manuscript, University of Chicago, Department of Economics.

Havnes, T and M Mogstad (2011), “No Child Left Behind: Subsidized Child Care and Children’s Long-Run Outcomes,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 3(2): 97-129.

Havnes, T and M Mogstad (2014), “Is Universal Child Care Leveling the Playing Field?” Journal of Public Economics 127: 100-114.

Heckman, J, J, N Hohmann, J Smith, and M Khoo (2000), “Substitution and Dropout Bias in Social Experiments: A Study of an Influential Social Experiment,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 115(2): 651-694.

Heckman, J J, R Pinto, and P A Savelyev. (2013), “Understanding the Mechanisms Through Which an Influential Early Childhood Program Boosted Adult Outcomes,” American Economic Review 103(6): 2052-2086.

Kline, P and C Walters (2014), “Evaluating Public Programs with Close Substitutes: The Case of Head Start,” IRLE Working Paper #123-14. Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, University of California-Berkeley.

Knudsen, E I, J J Heckman, J L Cameron, and J P Shonkoff (2006) “Economic, Neurobiological, and Behavioral Perspectives on Building America’s Future Workforce,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103(27): 10155-10162.

Puma, M, S Bell, R Cook, C Heid, P Broene, F Jenkins, A Mashburn, and J Downer (2012), “Third Grade Follow-Up to the Head Start Impact Study: Final Report,” OPRE Report 2012-45. Administration for Children & Families.

Putnam, R D (2015), Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, New York: Simon and Schuster.


1 Elango et al. (2015a) discuss this using evidence from Baker et al. (2005, 2008, 2015) and Havnes and Mogstad (2011, 2014).

2 See Elango et al. (2015a) for a comparison of results across prominent demonstration programmes.

3 See Elango et al. (2015a) for a comparison of results across prominent demonstration programmes.

4 See Heckman et al. (2013), Conti et al. (2015), García and Heckman (2014), and Elango et al. (2015a).

5 Puma et al. (2012).

6 See, e.g., Cascio and Schanzenbach (2013).

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