A new study by an influential labor economist finds child-care programs that begin at birth benefit both the children and the country. (AJC File)

Economists find long-term payoff of teaching kids at earliest age

A new study on the economic benefits of early childhood education suggests the highest return comes from quality programs for at-risk children starting at birth. That will likely be a tough sell to legislators in Georgia and elsewhere already balking at the cost of extending their state pre-kindergartens to 3-year-olds.

In earlier studies, Nobel Prize winning labor economist James Heckman showed quality preschool for 3-and 4-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds yields a 7 to 10 percent annual return. In his new study, Heckman found high-quality programs from infancy to age 5 can deliver a 13 percent per-child, per-year return on investment through reduced crime and health costs and improved rates of education, civic engagement and employment.

In their study, “The Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program,” Heckman and colleagues from the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center tracked children in two high-quality North Carolina child-care programs through age 35 to quantify the impact of early intervention.

“We are talking about 50 weeks a year for the first 5 years, 8 to 9 hours a day, in terms of engagement of the child,” said Heckman in a press call. “Not only did this program provide high-quality child care from the earliest years, it provides a form of subsidy for women to go back to the workplace. It has a two-generation impact. It lets women complete more education and gain more workplace skills. And it also turns out to improve the lives of their children. The kids are actually enriched.”

The researchers analyzed the effects of two similar preschool experiments that provided comprehensive developmental resources to low-income African-American children from birth to age 5, including nutrition, access to health care and early learning. Children were randomly assigned into the treatment groups or a control group that had access to child-care alternatives such as lower quality center-based care or in-home care. Most of the children were being raised by single mothers.

The study collected data on cognitive and socio-emotional skills, education, and family economic characteristics from the participants annually through age 8 and then at ages 12, 15, 21, and 30. There was a full medical survey at age 35 and a review of any criminal activity.

While most state-funded pre-kindergartens target 4-year-olds, the programs in the study enrolled infants at 8 weeks old when “human skills are most fluid,” said Heckman.

That early exposure to quality child care and engaged caregivers paid off with boost in IQ that followed children into adulthood. “We found most of the growth in IQ in terms of cognitive skills has taken place by age 3,” said Heckman. Research on pre-k programs, including his own study of the Perry Preschool Project, didn’t see any lasting improvements in IQ, said Heckman. But the IQ gains to the children in the North Carolina programs endured through the final IQ measurement at age 21.

The takeaway on raising IQ in children: “The sooner the better, the earlier the better,” said Heckman. “That lasting effect in cognition, combined with increased social and emotional skills that are known to drive achievement, were factors in better outcomes and returns on investment.”

Heckman said birth-to-5 programs are expensive — the programs in the study cost about $18,500 per year per child — but so are the Hoover Dam and the U.S. highway system. No one faults spending on the dam or the highways because of the clear benefits, he said.

There are also clear benefits to public investments in early care, he said, citing improved social mobility and economic opportunities, increased social engagement and reductions in health care costs and crime.

“This is very strong evidence for supporting this kind of program going forward,” he said. “The data speaks for itself. Investing in the continuum of learning from birth to age 5 not only impacts each child, but it also strengthens our country’s workforce today and prepares future generations to be competitive in the global economy tomorrow.”

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