New investments in early education a boon for later health

Published on
December 12, 2014

It’s been a big week for early childhood advocates. On Wednesday, President Obama hosted a White House summit on early education where he touted a $1 billion public-private spending package to bolster high-quality preschool, Early Head Start and similar programs.

One of the initiative’s main goals is to increase the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in high-quality preschool. Only about 30 percent of 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in state-funded programs nationwide, and cost of private preschool is a big barrier for low-income families.

Obama announced $250 million in new preschool development grants (for states such as Alabama and Arizona, where state-funded pre-K lags) and expansion grants (New York and Illinois are among the big winners) that are designed to ramp up existing pre-K programs.

“Another $500 million from the Health and Human Services Department is being sent to more than 40 states to expand Early Head Start and child care programs for youngsters from birth to 3 years old,” the AP noted.

In conjunction with the summit, the White House Council of Economic Advisors released a report buttressing the economic argument for investing in early childhood education. The analysis suggests a huge return on early childhood programs:

In total, the existing research suggests expanding early learning initiatives would provide benefits to society of roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent, about half of which comes from increased earnings for children when they grow up.

All this might seem like more of an education – or even economics – story than a health story, but it’s worth pausing to remember just how tightly linked health and early education are. As a growing body of research has shown, early education translates into later-in-life health.

The most famous recent study bearing out that link comes from James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate who Nicholas Kristof recently dubbed “the leading scholarly advocate of early interventions.” In March, Heckman and his team published a study in Science that looked at the long-term health of disadvantaged kids who were enrolled in the Carolina Abecedarian Project, a widely studied, oft-cited preschool program dating back to the 1970s.

The program, organized as a randomized controlled trial with treatment and control groups, combined a preschool curriculum with meals and basic pediatric care (check-ups and screenings). When Heckman’s team analyzed the data on former participants three decades later, they found striking differences between the two groups:

Using recently collected biomedical data, we find that disadvantaged children randomly assigned to treatment have significantly lower prevalence of risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in their mid-30s. The evidence is especially strong for males… One in four males in the control group is affected by metabolic syndrome, whereas none in the treatment group are affected.

The men in the treatment group were also significantly more likely to have health insurance and access to care by age 30. “Treated males have a healthier body mass in their childhood years,” the study found. “These early benefits persist into adulthood.”

That’s the encouraging part. The harder sell is that this particular model required big inputs of time and money: “An intervention that lasted 5 years and cost $67,000 [in 2002 dollars] produced sustained and substantial health benefits,” Heckman’s team writes. Those figures may be outweighed in the long run by gains in health, earning potential and reduced criminality, but scaling-up programs with the comprehensive rigor of the Abecedarian program will require much bigger sums and political will than evidenced this week.

“That’s real money,” Obama said Wednesday in announcing this week’s package of federal dollars and $330 million in private funds. “Even in Washington, that’s real money.”

But The New York Times’ Michael D. Shear undercut that sentiment a bit by supplying a little missing context: “The $1 billion announcement is a drop in the bucket; in his original proposal to expand preschool last year, Mr. Obama called for 75 times that amount.”

Early education may seem like a rare opportunity for bipartisanship, but Congress has yet to embrace the President’s pre-K push. One of the striking themes to emerge in recent years is the extent to which Republican governors in states such as Alabama and Oklahoma have embraced state-funded pre-K, while their counterparts in the Capitol have kept their distance from proposals at the federal level.

Photo by Shanna Trim via Flickr.