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Radically rethinking the way to help poor kids

For a half-century, our nation has focused on early childhood education – school readiness programs like Head Start – as the best way to help low-income children escape the cycle of poverty. The idea is to level the playing field in cognitive and social skills by the time children from low-income families enter kindergarten so that they can keep pace with their more advantaged peers as they progress through school. In the next decade, we’ll spend $100 billion at the federal level just on Head Start, and all but a few states are funding their own pre-K programs.

Unfortunately, children who attend Head Start do no better in school than equivalent children who do not. Even the best pre-K programs’ positive impacts fade away in a couple of years, and some early childhood programs actually leave children worse off than if they hadn’t participated at all.

Yet, early childhood programs continue to get large amounts of taxpayer dollars, evidence be damned – which is true of so many programs in Washington. Conventional wisdom wins out, well-intentioned – let’s do what we can to help poor kids by intervening educationally when they are as young as possible. Because low-income and minority kids enter school far behind their higher income counterparts and don’t catch up –the theory of intervening early seems like common sense.

Which is why lately there has been a push by politicians to go one step further and create preschool programs for all, regardless of income. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has recently established such a program; Boston and DC are already implementing one. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have campaigned on a plan to make universal pre-K a national priority. President Obama has proposed a federal-state partnership, called Preschool for All, that would cost more than Head Start. Think of it like Social Security: the social compact (and willingness to pay for it) only works if it is an entitlement for everyone.

But if our goal is to help poor families, is this the really best way and an efficient use of taxpayer dollars? No.

In a recent study, I compare the effects of direct income transfers to low-income families (such as the Earned Income Tax Credit or EITC) with programs designed to increase school readiness (universal preschool and Head Start). It turns out that putting money directly in the pockets of low-income parents, as other countries do, produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than a year of preschool or participation in Head Start or some other more expensive education reforms like class size reduction. The results throw water on the conventional wisdom.

It turns out that while the EITC isn’t specifically designed to help boost academic achievement, it does, and not just for the younger kids, but even for the older ones in the same family. Not only that, the EITC is a bargain compared to the programs specifically designed to help poor kids academically. Each of four evaluations of U.S. family income support programs found substantially larger test score increases per $1,000 of public expenditure than programs specifically aimed at improving educational outcomes by focusing on school readiness: neither pre-K (two to four years later) or Head Start (four years later) showed the same improvement as the family support programs. Studies of the EITC also show impacts on even later outcomes — such as college enrollment and earned income.

The present annual federal expenditure on EITC is about $65 billion. During the 2013 tax year, the average EITC was $3,074 for a family with children. In contrast, Head Start runs about $8,000 per child. Boston and Washington, D.C.’s pre-K programs run about $18,000 per student. It this case, spending less (EITC) is actually more effective than spending more (Head Start, universal pre-K). It’s a win-win.

But there is no need to pit the policy choice of family support programs against school readiness – it’s a matter of emphasis rather than mutual exclusivity. In other words, expenditures that have a primary goal of strengthening and supporting families in carrying out their responsibilities as parents need not and should not ignore children’s development, including children’s cognitive and social emotional readiness for school. But in a family support model, school readiness is one branch on the tree, not the trunk. Such a support model could take many forms, either at the state level or on a federal level, including giving an annual scholarship for every low-income child under five to be spent by parents on the child care and early education services they want and need, as presidential candidate Jeb Bush proposed.

Senator Patrick Moynihan likened government bureaucracies dispensing social services to the poor as “feeding the sparrows by feeding the horses.” The school readiness option feeds the horses. In light of the evidence I’ve reviewed, perhaps it is time rethink our paradigm for supporting poor families. Let’s give them what they desperately need, more money, and let them decide how to spend it on the early care of education of their children.

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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