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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

Our Proposal in Brief

We propose an intensive two-year, educationfocused intervention for disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds. In a program modeled loosely after Perry Preschool and several state pre-K programs, college-trained teachers would staff the classrooms and administer the curriculum for three hours each day and spend some of their remaining work time engaging parents in outreach activities. Childto- staff ratios would average 6:1. Wraparound child care would also be available to working parents. A national curriculum for the program would be developed from preschool reading, mathematics, and behavioral interventions with proven ability to foster children’s academic and attention skills in engaging ways.

We estimate that the annual per child cost of the early education component of our program would amount to $8,000, or $16,000 over the entire two-year enrollment period. Child care costs would add $4,000 annually to this total, for a total two-year cost of $24,000. Children from families with incomes below 1.5 times the poverty line would be able to participate in the educational component free of charge, and partial subsidies would be available for children from families with incomes up to three times the poverty line. Higher-income families could also participate, but would not receive a subsidy. The total gross cost of our proposal to the government is on the order of $30 billion a year. Because our proposed intervention overlaps with some existing services, we estimate that about $20 billion of additional government spending is required.

Social benefits generated from our program are difficult to estimate, but we argue that the benefit-cost ratio is almost certainly going to exceed unity and is likely to be between 4:1 and 7:1, making it one of the nation’s most profitable social investments. The intervention we propose, once fully scaled up, will reduce poverty in both the short and the long runs. Short-run effects are likely to follow from increased employment and work effort among families receiving subsidized education and care. Program effects on children’s future earnings and behavior might plausibly reduce future poverty rates in the United States by around 5 to 15 percent of current levels (or 1 to 2 percentage points).

In what follows we first show why a proposal such as ours is needed, and then explain some of its details.