Big Government, Better-Off Kids

The case for spending a lot of money on programs that help children.

Dhaija Smith, 4 at a Head Start Center.
Dhaija Smith, 4,  finishes her milk during breakfast with her classmates at the Brown E. Moore Head Start Center in Shreveport, La.

Photograph by Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images.

In this time of taking a knife to state and federal budgets, big cuts in government funding for children are in process or on the way. In particular, many states have slashed funds for preschool and after-school programs, and Congress is considering more.

To deal with deficits, some of these kinds of cuts may be necessary. But lest they move recklessly, legislators should think carefully about which government investments have helped kids most and why. The often-overlooked history is that children are better off today than they were 30 years ago, measured by the four yardsticks that are critical to adult success—educational attainment, criminal behavior, teen births, and alcohol and drug abuse. Take a look at this chart:

Births to teenage mothers have fallen by more than 25 percent since 1980 because of a decline in teen pregnancies (there has been no increase in the abortion rate for young women). The violent crime rate for teenagers has fallen 15 percent since 1980 (and has declined more than 50 percent from its peak in the mid-1990s). Binge drinking among youth declined by almost half and drug use by one-third from 1980 to 2010. Meanwhile, educational attainment is up. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the graduation rate for the high-school class of 1980 was 71.5 percent. In 2010, the graduation rate was 75.6 percent. All of these outcomes have improved despite waves of immigration, higher graduation standards, the inclusion of more children with learning disabilities in schools, and the well-known increase in single-parent families.

Thus, there is real cause for celebration. The breadth of the good news is often missed, however, because analysts generally have focused too narrowly, looking only at a single outcome and at programs that target teenagers, instead of taking into account the impact of the government’s increased investment, beginning in the 1960s, in programs for pregnant women and young children. For example, economist Janet Currie reports that participation in WIC, a federal program that provides food to pregnant women, greatly decreases the likelihood that they will give birth prematurely or have a low-birth-weight infant—two factors that influence children’s cognitive development and school performance. And as Nobel economist James Heckman has gotten a lot of attention for showing, early childhood programs can help set good patterns for the future. For example, long-term follow-ups of children who received intensive services through the Old’s Nurse Home Visitor program, the Abecedarian Childcare and Home Visit program, the Perry Preschool, and the Chicago Parent and Child Centers all found that the young children in these programs were much less likely to have a child as a teen or to be delinquent, compared with children like them who were not in these programs.

While very few children have participated in intensive programs like these, studies of Head Start, which began supporting millions of children in the 1960s and ‘70s, also find long-term effects. Although the evidence is mixed with respect to whether participation in Head Start produces long-term cognitive gains, other research by Currie shows that children who attended Head Start were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college than their siblings who did not. Among African-American families, siblings who attended Head Start were significantly less likely to be charged with a crime.                                                                                                                       

So far, I’ve been telling you about programs that have been widely recognized. Here’s what’s new: research has begun to demonstrate the importance for their development of connecting children with caring adults. We’ve come to understand that these relationships are critical for helping children overcome adversity—they can actually alter how a child’s brain changes. Over the past 40 years, the number of programs in this category, such as Big Brother and Big Sister, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other after-school programs, has grown enormously. Efforts like these are rarely cataloged, let alone evaluated, so researchers are cautious in making broad claims about impact. But the importance of adult-child connections supports government spending on a range of programs that foster them. There’s no magic-bullet program. But it’s also wrong to blast the government for throwing money at a problem it can’t solve. We’ve been making wise investments, and we’ve been getting results.

Thanks to Stanford law and education student Charles Wysong for his research on this article.