Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Reducing Poverty through Preschool Interventions
Greg J. Duncan Jens Ludwig Katherine A. Magnuson


Greg Duncan, Jens Ludwig, and Katherine Magnuson explain how providing high-quality care to disadvantaged preschool children can help reduce poverty. In early childhood, they note, children’s cognitive and socioemotional skills develop rapidly and are sensitive to “inputs” from parents, home learning environments, child care settings, and the health care system.

The authors propose an intensive two-year, education-focused intervention for economically disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds. Classrooms would be staffed by college-trained teachers and have no more than six children per teacher. Instruction would be based on proven preschool academic and behavioral curricula and would be provided to children for three hours a day, with wraparound child care available to working parents.

The authors estimate that the annual cost of the instructional portion of the program would be about $8,000, with child care adding up to another $4,000. The program would fully subsidize low-income children’s participation; high-income parents would pay the full cost. The total cost of the proposal, net of current spending, would be $20 billion a year.

Researchers have estimated that a few very intensive early childhood programs have generated benefits of as much as $8 to $14 for every $1 in cost. The authors think it unrealistic that a nationwide early education program could be equally socially profitable, but they estimate that their proposal would likely have benefits amounting to several times its cost. Some of the benefits would appear quickly in the form of less school retention and fewer special education classifications; others would show up later in the form of less crime and greater economic productivity. The authors estimate that their program would reduce the future poverty rates of participants by between 5 percent and 15 percent.