Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children


“What we’ve done is shown the benefits across two generations of the study of these enriched early child care programs,” Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman said in an interview with NPR. “Not only providing child care for working mothers — allowing them to get more education — but primarily to get more work experience, higher earnings gains through participating in the workforce, but also getting high-quality child care environments that turn out to be developmentally rich. It promotes social mobility within — and across — generations. That I think is an important finding of this study.”

Heckman and his colleagues have just released these findings in a paper called “The Life-Cycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program.”

A two-page summary is posted here.

The goal was “to estimate the long-range benefits of a couple of very similar, high-quality programs from the 1970s that served mostly low-income, African American children. They selected the programs—the Carolina Abecedarian Project and Carolina Approach to Responsive Education—because they’ve served as blueprints for others around the world, including the highly regarded Educare,” the Atlantic explains.

“In previous work, Heckman established a 7 percent to 10 percent return on investment based on analysis of the Perry Preschool program, which served 3- and 4-year-olds,” a University of Chicago news release says.

In the new study, researchers “calculated the return on investment through life outcomes, such as health, involvement in crime, labor income, IQ and increases in mothers’ labor income as a result of subsidized childcare.”

The return on investment? “13 percent per child annually—a rate of return that’s comparable to returns on a savings account or the stock market.”

“The study relies on data collected annually from birth until the age of 8 and then at various points in adolescence and adulthood. It includes data on cognitive skills, education and family economic characteristics as well as a full medical survey at age 35 and detailed records of any criminal activity.”

“No one category by itself drives the high return that we estimate; it’s the overall effect across outcomes that are measured throughout the life cycle,” study co-author Jorge Luis García, a doctoral student at UChicago, said in the news release.

“Benefits differ substantially by gender,” the paper itself explains. “Females have more beneficial treatment effects than males, but the monetized value of the male treatment effects is greater.”

For males, there were “substantial effects on health and (health-related) quality of life as well as crime…”

For females, “the benefits are concentrated in education, employment, and minor crimes. The effects for females are stronger compared to the alternative of staying at home. The effects for males are stronger compared to the alternative of participation in alternative childcare arrangements.”

The website Chalkbeat Indiana adds:

“With many cities and states focused on the expansion of full-day kindergarten or preschool in recent years, the new findings bolster arguments for early childhood investments that also cover kids’ first three years.”

The costs?

Heckman tells NPR: “Per-year it’s probably about $16,000 to $18,000. It depends on what (year) dollars you use. It’s expensive.”

He adds:

“But what are you getting in return? You’re getting hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Seven to eight hundred thousand dollars back for what is essentially an $80,000 to $85,000 expenditure. Yes, it costs more but we can go back and think: In its time the transcontinental railroad that Abraham Lincoln launched, the Hoover Dam, the transcontinental highway system that Eisenhower launched. These all were very costly, but they also led to enormous social benefits.”

Spread the word about Heckman’s new research: Investing in children has enormous social – and economic — benefits.

Other coverage of this research includes:

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s Get Schooled blog

Chicago Magazine’s story: “Why Pre-K Education Could Be One of the Best Ways to Reduce Crime,” and

Education Dive’s “Should school districts play a larger role in birth-to-5 programs?”