Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

This month in the Washington Post, Jared Bernstein makes a strong case for battling social inequality by investing in high-quality early education and care.

Bernstein was Vice President Biden’s chief economist, and he is currently a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The title of his article is: “The biggest public policy mistake we’re continuing to make, year after year.” The article’s tagline adds: “By not investing in quality early childhood education, we’re leaving vulnerable kids behind and lots of future benefits on the table.”

Bernstein’s reasoning:

“It is widely agreed that while we do not seek equal outcomes in America, we do aspire to equal opportunity, at least in theory,” he writes in the Post. “We have, however, never come close to that ideal, particularly as regards minorities and those with few resources. A great way to correct that is to invest more national resources in early childhood education.”

How bad is American inequality?

“While there are many uniquely positive attributes about the US economy, something is fundamentally wrong and here’s what it is: economic growth can no longer be counted on to deliver broadly shared prosperity,” Bernstein writes in his book, “The Reconnection Agenda: Reuniting Growth and Prosperity.”

One result — that’s gotten a lot of attention — is that most of the nation’s wealth is held by the richest families. Meanwhile other families struggle to provide basics – creating a disparity that takes a toll on children in lower-income families.

In the Post, Bernstein writes:

“As private resources become more unequal and… relatively less available to children growing up in opportunity-constrained situations, we need to devote more public resources toward improving their life chances.”

He adds: “The fact that we are not doing so is the most portentous public policy mistake we’re making.

“A bold assertion, I know, but I make it based on the uniquely high quality of the research showing the large net benefits of early-childhood investments.”

Bernstein points to research done by economist Sheldon Danziger, which is described in part here. While it’s no surprise that wealthier parents spend more money on their children than less wealthy parent, what Danziger points out is how much more is spent. From 2005 to 2006, families in the lowest 20th percentile of income earners spent $1,315 on enrichment activities from their children. Parents in the top 20th percentile spent $8,872.

“I’d like to tell you that we’re making up the difference with public expenditures targeting economically vulnerable young kids, but we’re not,” Bernstein writes. “On the other hand, other countries are.”

“We invest much less in young children, and that stems largely from the fact that most other advanced economies view early childhood education, child care and other benefits targeted at parents with young children as ‘public goods,’ meaning investments that, absent public support, would be insufficiently made from the perspective of society’s well-being.”

“That implies that the benefits to spending on, say, pre-K education end up being worth more than the costs. And here we turn to the quality evidence I mentioned earlier, which has thankfully been collected by economist Tim Bartik in his book ‘From Preschool to Prosperity…’”

Bernstein points to Bartik’s finding that children in high-quality early education earn more income over their lifetimes. In addition, high-quality early education makes it easier for parents to go to work and boost their families’ economic well-being.

How would the country pay for a substantial expansion of high-quality preschool programs? Bernstein has an answer:

“How about a tiny, one-hundredth of a percent tax on security trades (stocks, bonds, etc.), i.e., a small financial transaction tax? That would raise more than enough to pay for” several approaches, including President Obama’s preschool plan.

Bernstein’s concluding point in the Post:

“…with inequality on the rise, opportunity on the run and large net benefits left on the table year after year, to not make these investments in young kids is just … well, we’re not allowed to say ‘stupid’ in my house, but if we were, that’s what I’d say.”