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How to Ease Inequality on the Cheap

The Obama Administration wants to make daycare universal for four-year-olds. But more basic short-term support for poor families with babies could greatly increase the child’s future earnings.


The president wants Congress to expand daycare access to every child in America, an expensive and politically complicated proposition according to critics. But much less intensive pre-k support for moms could still produce major windfalls down the road for their babies, claims a new working paper from the World Bank. The authors found that once-a-week, one-hour visits from a childcare aide for mothers and kids in poor Jamaican communities resulted in nearly 50 percent higher earnings and improved mental health when those babies became adults—20 years after only a two-year intervention.

Findings are consistent with a well-established body of evidence that suggests early childhood interventions like daycare might be a better investment than the stock market.

In 1986, a group of researchers enlisted 129 nine-to-24 month-old babies from Kingston, Jamaica, all with poverty-stunted physical growth. The babies were split into four randomized groups: one group received food supplements (things like baby formula and cornmeal) every week; another group received nothing; a third group of kids and their mothers received one-hour weekly sessions with a child development aide that had received a few months of training in primary health care, teaching methods, and toy making; a fourth group received the aide’s visit, as well as the extra food. The study team monitored things like the babies’ years of schooling, IQ, and mental health (and, eventually, their earnings) throughout the first two years, then every few years until age 18. In the late 2000s, the World Bank paper authors—including James Heckman, Nobel laureate from the University of Chicago who has figured prominently in debates over daycare—picked up the thread, re-interviewing these study subjects around age 22.

You might think starving kids that got extra food saw the best outcomes later in life. But previous surveys of the kids’ lives established that the food aid had no long-term effect on health and earnings. On the other hand, the impact of the one-hour weekly visits from an aide appeared far greater: Average earnings for 22-year-olds whose moms participated in those weekly sessions were 42 percent higher than the control group. But kids who received an aide’s intervention didn’t just leave behind their stunted-growth peers—their earnings actually caught up to a group of children from the same neighborhoods that grew up less impoverished and received no such intervention. The aides’ efforts appear to have nipped starting-line inequality in the bud.

So what was the aides’ secret? They relayed a little knowledge about childcare to the moms, and encouraged them to talk to and to play more with their kids. They also tried to boost the self-esteem of the child and the mother through praise. Pretty basic stuff, but the authors were willing to infer causality, not just correlation, between these weekly interactions and kids’ improved outcomes: Part of the initial study looked at the parents’ level of engagement with their babies outside the time spent with aides, finding that that little weekly boost inspired more engagement for two years, then enthusiasm dissipated. The kids nevertheless continually outpaced the control group and even caught up with their non-stunted peers.

It’s worth noting that, like the few American studies that have undertaken long-term, randomized efforts to track outcomes for kids in programs like Jamaica’s, the sample size was small. Another caveat: Every child in the study was given free health care. Absent that expensive component, a broken leg and a stack of huge medical bills might negate the benefits of teaching a mom how to mother.

But the findings are consistent with a well-established body of evidence that suggests early childhood interventions like daycare might be a better investment than the stock market. And improved educational attainment, mental health, and earnings for young adults 20 years after a once-a-week check-in seems like a lot of bang for your buck.