It makes ECONOMIC sense to invest in disadvantaged children while they are young

August 27, 2006 | By | 16 Replies More

I can’t think of a dumber investment policy than to have our states spend three times more on average per prisoner than per pupil…  We don’t really have a money problem in America, but a profound values problem and a profound priorities problem.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, during her lecture “Stand Up for Children Now,” on April 19, 2006 at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.

Americans spend $60 billion a year to imprison 2.2 million people. This statistic compelled me to pull out my calculator.  The result was shocking.  In the United States we spend more than $27,000 per prisoner per year.  Is this effective?  Other than the violence, crowding, beatings by “goon squads,” rapes, riots, and high rates of recidivism, that is, is it effective?  There are many reasons to be concerned.  Here’s the main reason indicated by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons:

What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons. We must create safe and productive conditions of confinement not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it influences the safety, health, and prosperity of us all.

What might be more effective method of using our limited social resources than putting millions of people in prison?  How about investing more in the training and education of disadvantaged children?  This is not just an idealistic platitude.  In the June 30, 2006 issue of Science ( – article available only to subscribers online), James Heckman conducted an analysis that is well worth reading; his article is called “Skill Formation and the Economics of Investing in Disadvantaged Children.  Here are some of Heckman’s conclusions:

I. Skill formation is built on foundations that are laid down earlier in life.  Therefore, “cognitive, linguistic, social, and emotional competencies are interdependent; all are shaped powerfully by the experiences of the developing child and all contribute to success in the society at large.”

II. Early learning is a foundation for later learning; learning is self reinforcing.  Learning skills at earlier ages makes it much more likely that learning will continue. “A child who falls behind may never catch up.”  See the following graph (from the Heckman article), which illustrates the fact that, economically speaking, we massively over-invest in later-schooling and post-schooling programs, while we under-invest in providing enriched schooling for disadvantaged children.

rate of return.jpg

III. Dysfunctional early environments (those that don’t stimulate children) place children “at an early disadvantage.”  This has more to do with the lack of stimulation than with the lack of financial resources.

IV. We should not evaluate education programs solely on academic success.  Many people argue that Head Start is a failure because it failed to raise the IQ of participants compared to non-participants.  According to Heckman, this assessment misses something critical.  Even when it does not improve IQ scores, early intervention causes children to be more motivated to learn.  Disadvantaged children who had the benefit of early intervention (in the form of enriched preschool environments) “had higher rates of high school graduation, higher salaries, higher percentages of homeownership, lower rates of receipt of well for assistance as adults, fewer out of wedlock births, and fewer arrests.”

V. By third grade, the gaps in test scores become stable.  Therefore, intervention later than third grade has little impact improving achievement (compared to intervention prior to the third grade.  Typically, the cost of addressing these issues at a time later than third-grade is very expensive in addition to being inefficient. These much more costly programs include reduced pupil-teacher ratios, public job training, convict rehabilitation programs, tuition subsidies or expenditures on police.

Heckman concludes that “investing in disadvantaged young children is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and at the same time promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large.”

Investing in the education of children is a moral issue.  What kind of country would fail to address the early educational needs of its innocent children, thereby dooming many of them to dysfunctional or desperate lives?   If that doesn’t grab one’s attention, the following statistic should.  Heckman’s study determined that paying to enrich the early educational environment of disadvantaged children pays society economic dividends at a rate of 8.74 to 1.  For each dollar spent to enrich the environments of disadvantaged children, society pays 8.74 dollars less for things such as the exorbitant costs of welfare and the criminal justice system. 

As of 2003, it cost about $7 billion per year ($7,000 per pupil) to provide Head Start to 900,000 disadvantaged children in the U.S.  These children are our future.  We hemorrhage an equivalent amount of money every month to occupy Iraq. 

Go figure. Literally, go figure.


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Category: American Culture, Economy, Education, Good and Evil, Iraq

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. high and mighty says:

    christian concepts suggest that a person can find redemption, and become at some point, a useful addition to society. We house criminals, remove the most egregious anti social individuals from maistream for a time period, do nothing to impact thier way of behaving other than allow them greater access to other, like minded persons who can refine thier anti social tendancies, then release them. We offer no meaningful rehabilitation at all. And many of these we incarcerate can never be changed. Since the idea of potential spiritual redemption, and by extrapolation, societal redemption, is a religious concept, and religions are all myths and essentially bogus, I suggest we terminate these predators instead of housing them.

    Spending time and sums of money on children in a real, meaningful way is a given, it seems to me. The disagreement will come about, as it always will, concerning how these moneies should be spent, and how should time be invested with these kids. Throwing money at a problem, especially at a federal level, is often a waste. Kids, as individuals, will respond best to one on one time, and are unique in thier thinking and emotional makeup, so a cookie cutter approach would need to be discarded. Parental ego will also play a factor, and even the most intelligent, and perhaps especially the most intelligent, will resent being supplanted by a state or federal organization, unless we use adults only as a incubator, then wisk the children away to be housed in large dorms and indoctrinated as the agency in question sees fit. Any bypassing of parental influence to acheive a seemless society would be the antithisis of individuality and a freeethinking populace. This is one reason earlier, I suggested that the lower income classes/lower intelligence persons should be discouraged if not prohibited from creating children. This last idea offers the greatest opportunity to ensure well adjusted children, yet not stifle creativity and freethinking adults.

    Religious institutions, strong family groups, community involvment, and just plain rational thought all can impact children in a positive way, but such things are under attack (sometimes with good reason) and are not subject to a uniformity of application. Narrowmindedness and bigotted thinking has no place in religion, especially when applied to kids, and such monsters need to be assailed whenever seen. It seems that the combined civilizations have wrestled with this issue for thousands of years, each in their turn, and each new generation will fine tune the efforts of the previous one. In, perhaps, another thousand years, we might finally have acheived the perfect balance.

  2. high and mighty says:

    noticing that I neglected to mention education, instead having focused on early developement, I now say absolutely, spend huge sums on childrens education. Build schools, increase the pay of teachers making, such a position more attractive, and decrease the size of classroms to facilitate learning. Emphasise critical thinking as well as rote learning. Computers in classrooms, and many, many field trips. I would be happy to have my income taxes further to see this done. And the public school system as it stands now is but one method to educate. ALternative schools, as long as they work, should be more fully explored and developed. But this is nothing new, and long overdue

  3. Paul Moffett says:

    Silly young man – it makes fabulous economic (and political) sense from the point of view of Republicans to imprison 2.2 mil for these reasons: 1.) who do you think is being paid to build those prisons? Corporations, so it's another way to transfer public funds to the rich. 2.) Since the folks in prison are mostly lower class, it means 2.2 mil votes unavailable to the Dems, both now and later. 3.) It helps to build up the "justice" system, a.k.a. the State's enforcement arm, which is one of the parts of the government Repulicans like. 4.) It takes away discretionary funds from the activities that you advocate. Remember, Republicans are not in favor of government doing "good" for the lower classes, but only for the rich.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    I hope more Americans someday realize just how absurdly ineffective their criminal justice system is. American prisons are more like training grounds for criminals than they are rehabilitation facilities for integrating law-breakers back into society. The following are some statistics to consider.

    America has the largest prison population in the world — roughly equal to China's and Russia's combined. The vast majority of America's prisoners are African-American men, suggesting that America's long-standing bigotry toward this population likely has at least something to do with the prison demographics. Justice in America does not appear to be color-blind.

    In terms of the percentage of population in prison, the only country on earth that surpasses America is Rwanda — a consequence of Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Among developed countries, America is obviously in first-place, with 486 prisoners per 100,000 of population. Coming in a VERY distant second-place is New Zealand, with just 169 prisoners per 100,000 of population.

    For a good summary of these statistics, see here.

    Amazingly, America's prison population has ballooned at a time when the crime rate has actually been falling. See here.

    America's prison population (in federal prison alone) now exceeds the population of Houston. And if prisoners sitting in jail are included, the population would exceed that of Chicago.

    What is to blame for America's fantastically high prison population? There are many reasons, of course, but arguably the biggest factors are the social bias against Black men (which apparently creates barriers to education, to good careers and to an unbiased criminal justice system) and the "get tough" political rhetoric which fosters the mistaken belief that prison sentences reduce crime. These failed policies all come from the same source: social conservatives…the same people who told us that invading Iraq would be a good idea. In both cases, their policies appear to demonstrate a profound ignorance of human behavior and a profound incompetence in solving problems; in particular, a complete failure to recognize the system dynamics of social problems. For more information about system dynamics, see here and here and here. For more information about the counterintuitive behavior of social systems, see here.

  5. high and mighty says:

    paul, I would not put too much faith in finite, discretionary spending. Our government is not shy about borrowing huge sums of money as it wants. it is more that it values war at present. Perhaps there are more lower class people incarcerated than upper income as there are more lower class people? There will always be the haves and the have nots. This is again, a given, and based on intelligence, initive, and desire, and to some small degree, chance. It is then the choice of the have nots to either be satisfied with their station and sitation, or to work harder and or smarter to acheive greater economic station, or to violate laws in effect. It is a personal choice on the part of those in question, not the fault of any political parety.

    And then too, I cannot give any politician enough credit to have so engineered a situation that specifically targets a class of people covertly.

    It is possible that an individual can build a prison, but it would think that such a prison would need to be used in five years, not the fifty it would take for an individual to build such a prison that requires stringent security, and tight building codes.. Of course, the longer it takes to build any edifice, the higher will rise the costs of building. They increase yearly, if not more often.

    Other than housing criminals, what alternative is there? Removing laws and so creating anarchy? Despite fluffy, feel good platitudes, there are real, hardcore, dyed in the wool predators and parasites that have absolutely no sense of respect for another persons person or property. We could, of course, do away with indicvidual property, but that has been tried a few times, and with limited success save on a very small scale.

  6. Jason Rayl says:

    This is a consequence of a long-standing American bias, which can be summed up very simply and explains a GREAT DEAL of the apparent absurdities of our system.

    Americans do not want to pay for other people's problems.

    Parse it any way you want, it comes down to wallet politics, which is one of the reasons the death penalty stands in this country–the assumption being that if we kill 'em, we don't have to pay for 'em, even though in fact is costs more to put someone to death in this country than to warehouse them (but that only leads to appeal reform, so we can start limiting that expense.)

    Americans don't want to pay for someone else's babies. Americans don't want to pay for someone else's education. Americans don't want to pay for someone else's inability to find a job. Americans don't want to pay.

    The fact that we do end up paying a great deal for many of these things is seen as a mismanagement problem–not that there are more efficient ways to pay for these things but that all those "liberals" in government keep finding ways to screw Americans out of their money to pay for them.

    This is why Bush's original faith-based initiative seemed so appealing to so many of his supporters–because it looked like the government was getting out of the charity business.

    And trust me, most Americans see a lot of these programs as exactly that–charity. Not sensible solutions to community problems born of the way in which change effects the dynamics of a society. Not as necessary expenses to forestall future problems. But charity. People who can't or won't "fend for themselves" sucking off the government–i.e. the taxpayer.

    Plug that perspective in, add to it that most people don't understand how much they really are paying for the problems created by political capitalizing on common prejudice, and it all makes sense. At least, it explicable.

    Remember: Americans don't want to pay.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Highandmighty asked, "Other than housing criminals, what alternative is there?"

    Erich's original post answered that question: invest in kids when they are young, so they require less fixing when they are old. It's called preventive maintenance, and the lack of it is the reason why America has a plague of prisons. As Jason says, "Americans don't want to pay." Unfortunately, as we all know, the cheap man pays the most. Sure, you can "save" a few bucks by not changing the oil in your car, by not getting regular dental checkups, by trying to short-change your business customers, or by skimping on education for children, but you will wind up paying more in the long run. Lots more, given the $27k per prisoner cost of incarceration.

    Unfortunately, too many Americans — or at least too many of the corporations that run America and control its government — think only about short-term profits. But educating a child is not a short-term investment. So, what do you suppose happens when kids grow up and discover that their nation has failed them? Many will turn to drugs and crime. Is it any surprise that America has a bloated prison population? We shortchange our schools, because that's how most businesspeople run their companies, then we wonder why our kids graduate high school without meaningful career opportunities. Then, idiots like Bush slap Band-Aids on the problem (like his failing "no child left behind" program), instead of fixing the root causes of the problem: diverting taxes from education into war and into tax cuts for the rich; the ritual glorification of young athletes instead of young scholars; social bigotry against smart kids; social bigotry against non-White Americans; etc. All of this bias adds up.

    Schools have team sports that emphasize physical talent, yet have virtually no team events that emphasize mental talent. Here's an idea: instead of giving out grades for individual performance, create a new grading system where each person's grade also reflects the performance of the entire class; i.e., a system that encourages the smarter kids to help the slower ones, and that puts peer pressure on the slower ones to perform better. Here's another idea: work hard to give all kids — even those from poor or minority families — good opportunities to contribute their talents to society. Slam the door on those talents, and those kids will seek other outlets for their energy and creativity. For far too many kids, that means illegal outlets. Sure, maybe some people are "bad" people — they would rob and murder even if they had all the opportunities in the world — but the vast majority of people behave the way they do because of the pressures imposed on them by their environment. Stick an honest person into prison for ten years because he got caught doing drugs, and he probably won't come out an honest person. He'll have a prison record and a network of criminal contacts — hardly the resume of someone likely to fit comfortably into American society.

    Going back to highandmighty's question, "Other than housing criminals, what alternative is there," the answer is that there are a LOT of alternatives, but too many Americans have their heads too far up their rectums to consider meaningful alternatives. Just as it is easier for corporate executives to boast about how they are are "saving money" by slashing employee healthcare benefits (and ultimately hurting their bottom line through employee illness and disaffection), it's much easier to bloviate about "getting tough on crime" than to confront the criminal rehabilitation problem in a meaningful and productive way.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    I'd like to self-promote a bit. See a couple of my previous posts that might be relevant to this post:

    1) The Seventy Million Children Left Behind War

    2) Iraq is a domestic issue.


  9. high and mighty says:

    there is so much to say, I hardly know where to start, and wonder if I should even make the attempt, knowing I will undoubtedly as is my wont, leave too much out.

    In an area that suffered from 7% unemployment, I had two full time jobs. I now live in an area with one of the lowest unemployment records in the country, yet there are people here who have no jobs. A month ago, I sought a second job, and offered an unemployed man I know the chance to come along, get a job too. I even told him I could cover for him until he could pick up the skills needed to do his job by himself. He declined, prefering instead to suck on someones teat- mine, in part, as I even loaned him tools to fix his vehicle, some of which he actually returned. Paying for others that can't find a job? No. If they are not able to find a job in a employment rich enviroment such as I live in, then let them break a law and become incarcerated. I will pay either way, of course, but such individuals will never take their place as productive members of society. Harsh? We are animals, right? In the animal world, the weak and insufficient die off prematurely.

    Paying for anothers education, yes. A thousand times yes, but paying for the irresponsible actions of a couple that has no concept of what having a child means. No again. The irresponsible that are succored by the more responsible only learn that they can continue to act irresponsibly. Its called enabling.

    This quote borrowed from Grumpy pilgrim warms my heart.

    "Instead of giving out grades for individual performance, create a new grading system where each person’s grade also reflects the performance of the entire class; i.e., a system that encourages the smarter kids to help the slower ones, and that puts peer pressure on the slower ones to perform better. Here’s another idea: work hard to give all kids — even those from poor or minority families — good opportunities to contribute their talents to society."

    That sounds very New Testament. Very Biblical, and I am impressed. Also reminds me of bootcamp.

    There are stupid human behaviours that create criminals. That is the same for dogs that fataly maul human animals. The dog is usually the victim of human stupidity, either in how the animal was trained, bred, or how the human interreacted with it. In some cases, the dog is just rabid by no fault of a human animal. In almost all cases of a fatal mauling, whatever the cause, the dog is euphamistically "put down" killed. In the human animal kingdom, such human predators are only incarcerated for lengths of time. To fund corporations? To remove a voting block from a political party? No, to keep them from preying on other humans again. Granted, there are undoubtedly many human mistakes that led up to human predatory behaviour, but not always, as grumpy addressed left handedly. Regardless, the negative behaviour needs to be dealt with in the immediate, and steps also need to be taken to keep such from happening again through education, enhanced economics, greater sense of self worth, etc. Yes, all the alternatives. But, there will still be a certain segment of the population that will always be predators and parasites. Those last are mainly what I was refering to in my above post. I thought words like "hardcore" pretty much cleared that up. Impacting kids to improve thier self esteem is again, something that I just take for granted as to be needless to say.

    Our kids are the future, and our greatest resource. There is no such thing as spending too much money, properly allocated and used, or spending too much time with them.

  10. Deb says:

    The system of smarter kids helping the others is crap, pardon me for speaking so frankly. As part of the baby boom generation, in classes of 35-38 kids in a poor school, I got to spend an entire year in the hall trying to teach another 9 year old how to read. We sat in the hall for what seemed to be hours at a time (it really wasn't, it just seemed that way). The teacher's system was to take the smartest 4 kids, pair them permanently with the dumbest 4 kids, and see if a 9 year old makes a good teacher. I lost an entire year of schooling, and it is pretty frustrating to try to do something so beyond a child's capability.

  11. Erika Price says:

    Woah, what a rich discussion. I don't even know where to begin.

    First, I want to echo Jason's very apt statement: Americans don't want to pay. We adopt the old "Not in My Backyard" sentiment toward anything unsavory; we don't even like SEEING prisons anywhere near us, so of course we don't want to pay for them. Nor do we want to pay for anything that doesn't give a personal, immediate return. Rugged individualism for you, right? The city upon a hill that doesn't want any of our shining example to "trickle down" to the rest of the masses, huh? We can describe it and its origins a million ways, but I think you guys get the point.

    High: in your first comment, you mentioned the fact that prisons don't rehabilitate. Well, I favor a two-pronged solution: 1) fix the schools so that fewer people resort to crime and 2) reform the prison system to take on a more rehabilitatory approach. If it lowers recidivism, revamping the prison system doesn't really cost more overall.

    As per grumpy's suggested group grades: that sounds highly naive to me. Deb explained one of the pitfalls very well: we can't expect children to pick up the slack on their own. We also need to remember that no matter what a school does, it will never achieve 100% success. A family's stance on education and learning gets the opportunity to mold a child's intellect long before school even sees them.It seems unfair to expect a whole class to pull the weight of students that, through external conditions, do not participate or cannot contribute.

    However, that doesn't mean I prefer the current system of grading. Studies of proficiency tests and the Japanese model of "tracking" students reveals that holding a child back a grade when they have "failed" usually just dooms the child to percieving school in a wholly negative light from then on, or to seeing themselves as stupid. The letter-grade system promotes meeting basic criteria, and not applying concepts. No Child Left Behind made this worse, of course.

  12. grumpypilgrim says:

    To Deb's comment: it sounds like what you experienced was crap. I can relate: in my 8th grade science class, I got stuck with the job of being lab partner with the class pot head…not a fulfilling experience, I can assure you.

    However, the system you and I experienced isn't the solution I suggested in my above comment. The solution I suggested was to change the incentive system in a way that would urge students to work together. No one has to work together if they don't want to.

    In any case, it was just a suggestion. The current system appears to be broken, so maybe even a crap idea is better than nothing if it stimulates discussion. Accordingly, I would turn the tables back to you and suggest that instead of merely calling the idea crap, please contribute your own suggestion, because it takes no effort — and adds very little value — to merely dump on someone else's ideas.

    Again, the point I'm trying to make here is that America has created a social system that is both costly and ineffective, because it results in huge numbers of people winding up in prison. Maybe one solution is to treat academic performance more like we treat athletic performance: with pep rallies and team events. We cannot force kids to learn, but maybe we can make learning seem more cool, so kids will want to do it.

  13. Erich Vieth says:

    Make learning seem "cool"? Gee, Grumpy, where did you ever get the idea that hard disciplined work isn't cool? The obvious answer is almost EVERYWHERE. Let's start with the mass media. Check out the newspaper. We glorify high school athletics. We show up with cameras and crowds to cover every game. We applaud the athletes and touch them as they walk by so that a bit of their magic might rub off on us. We post their photos prominently in the newspapers. The quarterback gets his choice of dates with the choicest girls, not the guy who excels at chess (OK, I admit, I did NOT play football). Look at the amount of coverage in the paper. Pages and pages to cover sports. What about intellectual achievements? Are THEY covered? Not really. Only a spelling bee here and there, as though training hard to spell incredibly well is a good way to spend one's time (Einstein once said "If I can easily look it up, why should I memorize it?"). And then, yes, once each year you hear of the student who got a perfect score on the SAT. As though a perfect score is superior to a very high, though imperfect score.

    As far as work, check out most television shows that depict people in the workplace. Are they really working or are they just screwing around making wisecracks? How many hit shows are there that show anyone working hard (other than where they are in the glamour professions: medicine, law and criminal justice)? Can you even conceive of a show built around most jobs, the kinds of jobs where people work long hard hours, with no one applauding, where they strive for excellence?

    No. Learning, working hard and playing by the rules are not often rewarded in our society. If we showed more respect for honest hard work, perhaps our most capable people wouldn't flee to the highest earning jobs. They might, instead, take on work they consider to be meaningful.

  14. Erika Price says:

    And on the subject of the students most at-risk of a future involving crime, poor urban communities really suffer from a negative perception of academic persuits. Not only do most urban schools utterly lack basic resources, the culture glorified in the eyes of most urban children values athletics and music careers; highly unlikely fame-driven fantasy jobs as football players or rappers that most people certainly cannot attain. For the vast majority who don't stand a chance "getting out" by way of fame, crime seems a more accessible option than education and a well-paying career.

    In the suburbs, the favoring of athletics just leaves many doomed to mediocrity. In the higher-crime areas, it dooms children to the cycle of poverty.

  15. Erich Vieth says:

    More evidence that it makes sense to invest in the education of children when they are young:

    "Obedience and academic problems among those who received low-quality care in their first 4 1/2 years of life persisted through their 15th birthdays, suggesting the potential for lifelong difficulties."

    We need to take a huge chunk of money we are wasting by imprisoning drug users and to allocate that to the education of children.

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