Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



How to Ease Inequality on the Cheap

• July 26, 2013 • 10:40 AM


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.

Michael Fitzgerald
Michael Fitzgerald is an associate editor at Pacific Standard. He has previously worked at The New Republic and Oxford American Magazine.

More From Michael Fitzgerald

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.

October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”

October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.

October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.

October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.

October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.

October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.

October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.

October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.

October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.

October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.

October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.

October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.

October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?

October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.

October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.

October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?

October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.

October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.

October 15 • 8:00 AM

A Brief History of High Heels

How what was once standard footwear for 16th-century Persian horsemen became “fashion’s most provocative accessory.”

October 15 • 7:22 AM

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don’t always take alerts seriously.

October 15 • 6:00 AM

The Battle Over High School Animal Dissection

Is the biology class tradition a useful rite of passage or a schoolroom relic?

October 15 • 4:00 AM

Green Surroundings Linked to Higher Student Test Scores

New research on Massachusetts schoolchildren finds a tangible benefit to regular exposure to nature.

Follow us

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.