The rhetoric about government spending is become increasingly heated. It is there for useful to look back at studies that show the effect that such spending may actually have. I am surprised that until recently I was unaware of the Perry Preschool Study which was started in Michigan in the 1960s. The study involved about 120 African-American children 3 to 4 years of age. All were from extremely poor backgrounds – for instance, only a couple of the families in the study have ever been to a museum. The group was randomly divided into two parts: The performance of children in the control group was monitored, but nothing else changed. The kids in the second group went to preschool a couple hours each day. After preschool the intervention stopped.
The results of the study are astounding. You can see a brief summary here:
The increse in IQ at age 5 is actually misleading. It turns out that by high school the difference in IQ was not detectable. However, the earnings and likelihood of having been arrested at age 40 show that there was a lasting impact of having attended an enriching preschool program. There were many other differences between the groups, including higher high school graduation and lower teen pregnancy rates in the preschool group.
The interesting point is that children who went to preschool did not become more intelligent, but somehow acquired important social skills: They were better able to work with others, less prone to anger, and so on. These skills are very difficult to acquire later in life, if not learned at an early age.
But back to my original point: The intervention cost relatively little – around $20K per child in todays dollars. However, the benefits to society were far greater. Just think of the savings of having so many fewer people in jail. It is in the interest to all of us to invest in such programs. Yet, we are living in a time where exactly these programs are the prime target of cost-cutting politicians. Although such programs benefit us all, they are unlikely to be funded solely by philanthropists.