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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Reducing Poverty through Preschool Interventions
Greg J. Duncan Jens Ludwig Katherine A. Magnuson

Introduction

Can public policy reduce poverty in the future by investing more in today’s children, particularly young children? Research suggests that increased investments in prenatal and infant health and in high-quality preschool education programs will improve children’s life chances and generate benefits to society that can easily cover the costs of these government programs. Based on this evidence, we propose a national program providing highquality preschool education for three- and four-year-olds.

Increased policy attention to early childhood is warranted by new evidence regarding the lifelong implications of brain development during the early years, as well as the efficacy of early education programs.1 Neuroscience research has documented how complex cognitive capacities are built on earlier foundational skills and that many cognitive skills are sensitive to early life experiences.2 Preschool interventions may improve lifetime outcomes in part through the possibility that “learning begets learning”—that mastery by young children of a range of cognitive and social competencies may improve their ability to learn when they are older.3

Children’s early learning environments differ profoundly across lines of both race and class. For example, compared with kindergarteners from families in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic distribution, children from the most advantaged fifth are four times as likely to have a computer at home, have three times as many books, are read to more often, watch far less television, and are more likely to visit museums or libraries.4 One study found that threeyear- olds in families of low socioeconomic status had half the vocabulary of their more affluent peers, which in turn could be explained by the lower quality and quantity of parental speech.5

Differences in children’s learning environments contribute to large gaps in test scores, even among preschoolers. Numerous studies have compared the skills of preschool children from different socioeconomic backgrounds and racial or ethnic groups and found large differences in language and cognitive skills at school entry, age three, and perhaps even as early as age one.6

The early years also appear to be a sensitive period for the development of socioemotional skills, such as self-regulation.7 Such skills are connected, too, with brain development, as early emotional experiences literally become embedded in the architecture of infants’ brains.8 Research has documented a number of differences in the socioemotional skills of poor and nonpoor children—as young as seventeen months in the case of physical aggression.9 Among behavioral skills, a child’s ability to regulate his attention appears to contribute the most to success in elementary school.10 The attributes that make children eager learners in school may also influence the willingness of parents to engage them in learning activities at home.

Researchers have learned that rudimentary reading and, especially, mathematics skills at kindergarten entry are highly predictive of later school achievement, a finding that supports our emphasis on building these skills in our proposed preschool program.11 Although the correspondence is far from perfect, children who score poorly on academic assessments before entering kindergarten are more likely to become teen parents, engage in crime, and be unemployed as adults.12 Moreover, preschool problem behaviors like physical aggression are predictive of criminal behavior later in life.13

Preschool gaps in cognitive and socioemotional skills tend to persist through the school years and into later life. By the end of high school, the gap in achievement test scores between white and black children is at least as large as the preschool gap.14

The influence of the preschool years on children’s later achievement and success is not well reflected in current federal government budget priorities, which allocate nearly seven times as much money per capita for K–12 schooling as for prekindergarten (pre-K) early education and child care subsidies for three- to five-year-olds.15 Given the opportunities for profitable preschool investments in children’s cognitive and socioemotional development, current U.S. spending is not well targeted. Most social policies are devoted to playing catch-up against children’s early disadvantages, but disparities are already apparent among young children, and many disadvantaged children never catch up. Efforts to improve young children’s school readiness with proven, high-quality programs should play a much more prominent role in America’s antipoverty strategy than they do today.