Inequality, Opportunity, and Universal Pre-K

February 14th, 2013 at 5:00 pm

OK—I’m afraid that title promises more than you’re about to get.  But I do think the figure below underscores important relationships between the increase in inequality and diminished opportunities for less advantaged kids, and thus provides intuitive support for the President’s proposal for universal access to pre-school.

The figure shows so-called “enrichment expenditures”—spending by parents on extracurricular activities for their kids including sports, music/art lessons, books, tutoring—for low and high income households with kids from the earlier 1970s, when income was much less concentrated than today, through the 2000s.

Spending on such goods has increased over time for both income groups, an expected result given all the economic growth that’s occurred over these years.  But look how much steeper the slope is for the wealthier households.  Their enrichment expenditures were four times higher than that of the low-income group in the early 1970s; by the 2000s, their spending was seven times higher.

And these differences evolved over a period when many schools began to offer fewer of these types of enrichments as part of their curricula, essentially shifting the costs from the public to the private sector.  But with inequality jamming the income growth of middle and low-income families, too many have parents been able to pick up the slack.

All the more reason to ensure that kids whose parents can’t afford to provide them with the enrichment goods and services they need get some of them through a high-quality pre-school setting.

Source: Whither Opportunity?  Fig 1.6, introduction.  (BTW, OTE’ers–I strongly recommend this chapter.)

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6 comments in reply to "Inequality, Opportunity, and Universal Pre-K"

  1. Arvind says:

    Dear Jared,
    The data you indicate no doubt confirms intuitive belief. That richer parents will outspend poorer ones is almost certain. You say: “And these differences evolved over a period when many schools began to offer fewer of these types of enrichments as part of their curricula, essentially shifting the costs from the public to the private sector.” This too could well be true.

    However, to conclude from all the data you have presented that this calls for high quality pre-school seems incorrect. First, the idea that high quality pre-school has some kind of a transformative effect on the rest of the life of the kid is contested, is it not. That would be too simple a solution. Definitely, there are benefits to be had by good, even high quality pre-school programs. I suspect good nutrition is one among them, especially for low income folks. But educationally, I doubt (agreed, gut feeling) if something that happens in 0-5 years of age can overcome other factors that incessantly grate on you for the rest of your childhood.

    What I am trying to say is that simply pre-school will do nothing to make up for that steep change in slope. It really requires better school through all the grades – nothing else will make up. This data does not even take into account the time that more educated parents can spend with children.

    Greater than monetary inequality is the inequality due to ability of parents to be involved in the child’s education. If parental involvement could be measured, how will that metric look as a function of time? Complicated issue – will money make up for the problems?

    Best Regards
    Arvind


    • mitakeet says:

      I agree with Arvind,

      Subsidizing PreK will have essentially no impact because what impact it does have will be overwhelmed by events later in life. It isn’t like poor prenatal nutrition where a life-time impact is indeed the case, higher quality PreK schools that slide the student directly into low-quality elementary schools will do nothing but waste time, energy and money. The solution is better public schools all around, not selectively picking spots to fortify and ignoring the rest.


      • Jared Bernstein says:

        Good points re the need for longer-term focus. That said, the research is very clear on the lasting impacts–much later in life–of quality early childhood educ. Nobel economist Jim Heckman is a huge advocate: http://www.childandfamilypolicy.duke.edu/pdfs/10yranniversary_Heckmanhandout.pdf


        • Arvind says:

          Dear Jared,
          I did read through the document. The graph titled “Return to a Unit Dollar Invested” must be from earlier studies: The Perry Preschool Project and the Carolina Abecedarian Project. I also saw the post on Economist (http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2013/02/human-capital?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/doessubsidisedpreschoolpayoff) with some criticisms of the studies. However, I am not familiar with any of those studies and it is quite possible that you have good rejoinders to the criticisms in the Economist post.

          Just from the reading of the pdf you posted, I think Heckman seems to be pointing towards the importance of quality of parenting. On page 3, he says “The real measure of child poverty is the quality of parenting.” He goes on to say “In a study of a Connecticut Indian reservation where a tribe got wealthy through opening a casino, child welfare increased but mainly through improved parenting.”

          On page 4, he gives non-experimental evidence that supports early-childhood intervention. He says: “If society intervenes early enough, it can raise cognitive and socio-emotional abilities and the health of disadvantaged children.” I think this statement should be amended to “If society intervenes early enough and continues to, it can raise cognitive and socio-emotional abilities and the health of disadvantaged children.” Basically, I am just going back to the gist of my original post – early childhood is too small an interval to affect outcomes much later if the intervening years are not sufficiently nurturing.

          On page 5, he makes pretty telling statements: “Evidence suggests quality of parenting is key. Parenting is the scarce resource.” Even Heckman seems to be saying that Parenting is the key. Then, is early childhood intervention seen as proxy for quality parenting, which he says is a scarce resource? If so, why not try to do everything that actually makes that resource less scarce? His document can be read by a conservative and celebrated because it points to to the route that we should do everything possible to improve the family.

          I think the idea of pre-school is awesome. But to claim that it should be done because it will pay-off as handsomely as you claim seems on thin ice. I’m not convinced and I am the type of person who would like to be convinced. That this is as awesome an investment monetarily seems, for some reason, a holy-cow for at least some progressive-leaning thinkers.

          Good day care for all kids is an awesome idea – does that what universal pre-K reduce to? Public funding for that, I am sure, is not going to be available any time soon. Why not encourage other types of day-care-proxies. For instance encouraging a change in the family structure so that it is not just parent(s) and children but grand parents, parents, and children. In my case, I have found the role played by grandparents in my, and now in my son’s upbringing, to be extraordinarily crucial. It did not cost much!

          Anyway, too much rambling. Let me end on the note that you have a great challenge of convincing the nation of the merits of your case.

          Best Regards
          Arvind


  2. Tom in MN says:

    In “But with inequality jamming the income growth of middle and low-income families, too many have parents been able to pick up the slack.” I think the end should be “too many parents have not been able to pick up the slack.”

    The other thing pre-K helps with is daycare. If you want parents to be able to work (and not freeload — as if there is such a thing when you have young kids) there needs to be affordable daycare and pre-K provides some of that too. The after school program at our local elementary school made a major difference for my wife and I who both work. Before that we were paying college tuition size amounts for daycare, which most can’t afford to do.


  3. jo6pac says:

    So my question is are the pre-schools public or private. If corp. Amerika is doing the schooling then we know how this will end. If this removes more money from public education like 0 other program like leave no child behind and rebranded to make it sound better but removes even more funding from public schools so the private corp. schools owned by ? have more market share.


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