RAND Study Says Early Childhood Intervention Programs Save Money and Benefit Children, Families and Society

For Release

January 12, 2006

A RAND Corporation study issued today says well-designed programs for disadvantaged children age 4 and younger can produce economic benefits ranging from $1.26 to $17 for each $1 spent on the programs.

The report by RAND Labor and Population says effective early childhood programs return more to society in benefits than they cost, by enabling youngsters to lead more successful lives and be less dependent on future government assistance. Researchers say this is because such programs help children improve their thinking skills, do better in school and develop socially.

The large differences in the dollar returns for different programs reflect variations in the populations of children served by the programs and the range of benefits that researchers could express in dollar terms. As a result, not all programs could be easily compared to other programs on a dollar basis or expressed in dollar values.

The report says high-quality early childhood programs can keep children out of expensive special education programs; reduce the number of students who fail and must repeat a grade in school; increase high school graduation rates; reduce juvenile crime; reduce the number of youngsters who wind up on welfare as adults; increase the number of students who go to college; and help adults who participated in the programs as children get better jobs and earn higher incomes.

Some of the largest benefits came from the most expensive and comprehensive programs that provide services to children throughout their first five years of life. The researchers found, however, that even some small-scale, less expensive programs also provided benefits. In addition, more disadvantaged children tend to receive greater benefits from programs. The research team believes that its estimates of benefits are likely to be conservative.

The RAND study focused on three types of early childhood programs that are typically called intervention programs and target children who need help because of several factors – such as living in poverty or in a single-parent household. Examples of intervention programs are:

  • Parent education and child development services starting as early as the prenatal period – such as home visits by trained nurses who work with families.
  • Center-based programs starting anywhere from soon after a child's birth to one or two years before kindergarten entry – such as Early Head Start and Head Start.
  • A combination of the home visits or parent education with center-based programs.

Parents may also receive benefits from the early childhood programs, the study found. For example, mothers can get jobs when their children attend a full-day early childhood program, increasing a family's income. This also benefits society by reducing family's dependency on government assistance and increasing tax revenues.

In addition, the report says early childhood programs that focus on the entire family can help parents provide better care to their children and make it less likely that parents will mistreat their children. This reduces health care costs for children, including trips to the emergency room.

“Programs that provide developmentally appropriate services to disadvantaged children and their families can prepare children for school and pay dividends to society throughout their lives,” said Lynn Karoly, a RAND senior economist and lead author of the study. “These benefits have been demonstrated through high-quality evaluations of many programs.”

Other authors of the study are Rebecca Kilburn and Jill Cannon of RAND.

The study – called “Early Childhood Interventions: Proven Results, Future Promise” – was funded by The PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. (NYSE: PNC) through its PNC Grow Up Great initiative, 10-year, $100 million investment to improve school readiness for children from birth to age five.

“This growing body of evidence makes a compelling case for the need for and the importance of high quality early childhood education,” said Eva Tansky Blum, PNC senior vice president and director of PNC Grow Up Great. “Investing in the academic success of our children directly contributes to the overall economic health of our nation.”

Twenty percent of children in the United States younger than age 6 live in poverty, putting them at a greater risk of poor developmental outcomes during their school years and beyond.

Nearly half of all young children in the U.S. face at least one of four risk factors in early childhood associated with poor developmental outcomes and a lack of school readiness: living in poverty; residing in a single-parent household or with a mother who has less than a high school education; and having parents who do not speak English at home. About 16 percent of children face two or more of these risk factors.

The RAND researchers found that several key features of intervention programs appear to be associated with the best results:

  • Better-trained caregivers, such as a lead teacher with a college degree in a center-based program, or a trained nurse in home-visit programs.
  • Smaller child-to-staff ratios in center-based programs.
  • More intensive programs, though the evidence does not indicate an optimal number of hours children should attend and how this may vary with a child's risk characteristics.

The study confirms and expands on findings from an earlier RAND study, also headed by Karoly, which drew on a more limited body of research. That study – “Investing in Our Children: What We Know and Don't Know About the Costs and Benefits of Early Childhood Interventions” – identified 10 programs with evaluations that were detailed enough to compare.

The new study identified twice as many early intervention programs with sound evaluations, including 16 that followed participants until at least the time of school entry – and in one case 35 years after the program ended.

Researchers need to gather more information from programs for longer periods of time to reach a consensus on many important remaining questions, the study found. These include determining additional characteristics that make programs successful, and determining whether different interventions are needed for children with different risk factors.

RAND Labor and Population examines issues involving U.S. labor markets, the demographics of families and children, social welfare policy, the social and economic functioning of the elderly, and economic and social change in developing countries.

A printed copy of “Early Childhood Interventions: Proven Results, Future Promise” (ISBN: 0-8330-3836-2) can be ordered from RAND's Distribution Services (order@rand.org or call toll-free in the United States 877-584-8642).

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