Taking the long view: Budgeting for investments in human capital

Tomorrow, President Obama unveils his last budget, and we’re sure to see plenty of proposals for spending on education and skills. In the past, the Administration has focused on investments in early childhood education, community colleges, and infrastructure and research. From a budgetary standpoint, the problem with these investments is how to capture their benefits as well as their costs.

Show me the evidence

First step: find out what works. The Obama Administration has been emphatic about the need for solid evidence in deciding what to fund. The good news is that we now have quite a lot of it, showing that investing in human capital from early education through college can make a difference. Not all programs are successful, of course, and we are still learning what works and what doesn’t. But we know enough to conclude that investing in a variety of health, education, and mobility programs can positively affect education, employment, and earnings in adulthood.

Solid investments in human capital

For example:

1. Young, low-income children whose families move to better neighborhoods using housing vouchers see a 31 percent increase in earnings;

2. Quality early childhood and school reform programs can raise lifetime income per child by an average of about $200,000, for at an upfront cost of about $20,000;

3. Boosting college completion rates, for instance via the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) in the City University of New York, leads to higher earnings.

Underinvesting in human capital?

If such estimates are correct (and we recognize there are uncertainties), policymakers are probably underinvesting in such programs because they are looking at the short-term costs but not at longer-term benefits and budget savings.

First, the CBO’s standard practice is to use a 10-year budget window, which means long-range effects are often ignored. Second, although the CBO does try to take into account behavioral responses, such as increased take-up rates of a program, or improved productivity and earnings, it often lacks the research needed to make such estimates. Third, the usual assumption is that the rate of return on public investments in human capital is less than that for private investment. This is now questionable, especially given low interest rates.

Dynamic scoring for human capital investments?

A hot topic in budget politics right now is so-called “dynamic scoring.” This means incorporating macroeconomic effects, such as an increase in the labor force or productivity gains, into cost estimates. In 2015, the House adopted a rule requiring such scoring, when practicable, for major legislation. But appropriations bills are excluded, and quantitative analyses are restricted to the existing 10-year budget window.

The interest in dynamic scoring is currently strongest among politicians pushing major tax bills, on the grounds that tax cuts could boost growth. But the principles behind dynamic scoring apply equally to improvements in productivity that could result from proposals to subsidize college education, for example—as proposed by both Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton. Of course, it is tough to estimate the value of these potential benefits. But it is worth asking whether current budget rules lead to myopia in our assessments of what such investments might accomplish, and thus to an over-statement of their “true” cost.