We Americans love children.
Indeed, we love them so much that, on average, child care workers earn almost as much per hour ($10.33) as workers who care for animals ($10.82), according to a new study from the University of California, Berkeley.
We love them so much that only 38 percent of American 3-year-olds are enrolled in education programs. The average is 70 percent among the 34 industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
So if politicians are genuinely looking for a bipartisan issue to break through the Washington gridlock, here’s a suggestion: invest in early education.
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A poll over the summer found that 71 percent of voters supported a major federal investment in early education, including huge majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike. Leaders in doing this have been tinted both blue (New York City) and red (the State of Oklahoma) – as well as camouflage green (the U.S. military has an excellent preschool program).
Jim Messina, the campaign manager for President Barack Obama in 2012, and Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s rival campaign that year, this month wrote a joint memo advocating that both parties back investments in early education.
“Perhaps the biggest political opportunity for both parties lies in the nonpartisan issue of early childhood education,” Messina and Madden wrote.
Early education is the low-hanging fruit of public policy. It has the approval in principle of both Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, and abundant research suggests that early help for disadvantaged children could chip away at inequality, save public money and help those children reach the starting line.
I dropped in the other day on James Heckman, an owlish University of Chicago professor and Nobel Prize-winning economist who is the leading scholarly advocate of early interventions. He’s a numbers geek who advocates investing in early childhood programs simply because that is where society gets the most bang for the buck – returns of 7 percent to 10 percent per year, by his calculations.
Heckman argues that the cheapest way to reduce crime is to invest in early childhood programs for at-risk kids. He has crunched the numbers and found that to get the same reduction in crime by adding police officers would cost at least five times as much.
At 70 and showing no signs of slowing down, Heckman co-authored two major studies published in Science this year that underscored that the real question isn’t whether we can afford early education initiatives, but whether we can afford not to provide them:
▪ One follow-up found that adults who, as disadvantaged children, had been randomly assigned to attend an excellent preschool were much healthier than those who had been randomly assigned to the control group.
Now in their mid-30s, the men who had gone to the preschool had average blood pressure of 126 over 79; the controls were a much more worrisome 143 over 92. Those men who had attended the preschool were less than one-third as likely to be severely obese. Because they were also doing better in life, those preschool graduates were far more likely to have health insurance.
▪ Another follow-up looked at adults in Jamaica who 20 years earlier had been growth-stunted toddlers. At that time, some had been assigned to a control group and some to get a weekly one-hour visit from a health aide who coached parents on doing more to engage their children. Again, the results were stunning. Those who as children had been in the group getting the weekly visits were less likely to commit violent crimes than those in the control group. They stayed in school longer, and they earned 25 percent more as adults.
“It blew me away,” Heckman said of the Jamaica study. What was remarkable was how simple and low-cost the assistance was – a one-hour weekly visit by a health aide – yet it changed the lives of the children who participated.
“Early education” isn’t just about pre-K but rather an umbrella term for all interventions between pregnancy and age 5. Some of the most effective seem to occur during pregnancy and infancy, counseling at-risk women not to drink, smoke or take drugs while expecting, and then after birth, helping them breast-feed and read to the child, while avoiding lead paint and other toxins.
Why are these early interventions so effective? Apparently because the first few years are the window when the brain is forming and when basic skills like self-control and grit are developed.
Washington will probably be a discouraging gridlocked mess for the next couple of years. But here’s a rare issue where it’s just conceivable that we could make progress and build a stronger and more equitable future for our nation.
If our politicians really do love children, here’s a way to prove it.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.