Take a bunch of 3 year olds from poor families. Randomly divide them into two groups, and give one group free access to preschool. Then follow both groups for 40 years. This is what the researchers in the Perry Preschool Program did, starting in the early 1960s.
The results were astonishing. Kids from the preschool group were less likely to be arrested and more likely to have a job. Among those with jobs, those who went to preschool made more money than those who did not.
Other studies show similar results.
On today's today's Planet Money, we talk with James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist. Based on the data from these studies, he argues that using public funds to pay for poor kids to go to preschool actually saves the government money in the long run.
The cost to society of courts and crime is lowered. The cost of educating kids who are unruly and undisciplined in schools, that goes down. The benefits that the kid contributes to earnings and society, that goes up. And so on down the line.
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For more, see these studies:
A New Cost-Benefit and Rate of Return Analysis for the Perry Preschool Program: A Summary
The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Analyzing Social Experiments as Implemented: A Reexamination of the Evidence from the HighScope Perry Preschool Program
And this book:
Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America