The Right Start

We like to think that when children reach the American public school system, they are on equal footing. However, the truth is that the years before kindergarten are essential for intellectual growth, and, by kindergarten, some kids might already be irreparably behind if they do not attend pre-school. Universal pre-school for America’s youngest citizens is perhaps the most effective and important economic measure we can take to improve our long-term economic growth. In a time when we are looking for ways to adapt to a rapidly changing and competitive world, it is essential to make sure that lower-income and middle-class Americans are not left behind before they even reach kindergarten.

Experts have demonstrated that the pre-kindergarten years are absolutely crucial for the formation of strong social and cognitive abilities. According to Professor James J. Heckman from the University of Chicago, “Skill gaps (between children) open up early, before schooling begins, and…these gaps are major determinants of social and economic success.” Because of its major positive impact on America’s long-term stock of human capital, investing in early childhood education has few, if any, downsides. As Heckman has stated: “Investing in disadvantaged young children is a rare public policy with no equity-efficiency tradeoff. It reduces the inequality associated with the accident of birth and at the same time raises the productivity of society at large.”

A longitudinal study of children enrolled in a low-income pre-school program started in Michigan in the 1960s and followed for 40 years afterwards found that the public gained $12.90 for every $1.00 spent on the program. When we annualize this astounding 40-year payoff, we find that there was a yearly 12 to 13 percent rate of return from this pre-school program. Early childhood care and education has a higher return to unit dollar invested than any investing in skills at any other point in life, including schooling, college, and job training.

The importance of early childhood care and education inspired the creation of Head Start, America’s pre-school program for families in poverty. Head Start has reached hundreds of thousands of children since its creation in 1965, and although research on the subject has been mixed, most evaluations show that Head Start provides at least a reasonably positive benefit for its students. Yet, despite Head Start’s successes, there is still an enormous lack of quality childcare in America. The early childhood education system in the United States covers far less children than those in the rest of the developed world. Only 70 percent of American pre-school-aged children go to pre-school, while in most Western European countries the number is between 90 and 100 percent.

This low pre-school participation rate is because Head Start is a targeted program meant to reach those in poverty, but it is not nearly large enough to reach all children in need. Germany has kindergarten (which is comparable to American preschool) places for 93 percent of its children. In Belgium, enrollment begins at 2.5 years old and reaches almost 100 percent by age three, and France enrolls 100 percent of children from the age in the government-supported pre-schools from the age of three. These examples show that it is entirely feasible and realistic for the United States to provide preschool for all of its youngest citizens, and it is an embarrassment that we are practically the only developed country without such a program.


Many Western European countries have followed a similar model, supplying universal pre-school services for all children and subsidizing the schooling for the poor. By providing universal pre-school, these systems ensure that most children start off with a decent childcare baseline. Considering the importance of early childhood for intellectual and social development, the lack of childcare early in life for many Americans has them starting out “behind” before they can even think for themselves.

From an economic perspective, universal pre-school would help create a far more fair society. Inequality is ingrained in every level of our educational system, but it is most pronounced in the early childhood years, where unlike the rest of their schooling years, students can’t even go if they do not have access to pre-school. Such a policy would lead to a nation more capable of building, innovating, and creating in future decades. Human capital is an essential factor in economic growth, and it is far easier and more efficient to increase skills and knowledge at a young age. America’s least educated and least-skilled workers have especially struggled during the current recession and are sure to continue to be challenged in a more competitive global economy; starting life with a strong skill set is absolutely necessary to succeed later in life.

We should now create a universal pre-school system in America that ensures that children do not start out life with massive disadvantages because of their parents’ stability or income and enhances their productivity for the rest of their lives.  Universal pre-school would an be enormously popular program because it provides a free and necessary service to the rich, the middle-class, and the poor, and thus it is often politically easier to create such a program than it is to create one just for the poor. A universal pre-school program that cost $50 billion would provide $86.6 billion in economic gain, and through increased human capital and decreased crime would create benefits for every American. By creating such a system, we can dramatically improve the lives of the least fortunate form their earliest years.

Ravi N. Mulani ‘12, a Crimson editorial writer, is an applied mathematics concentrator in Winthrop House.