Help a Kid, Make a Buck

Print More

For years, social scientists of many stripes have tried to make the case for investing in the healthy development of our nation’s youth. The game involves showing how inputs produce desirable outcomes.

We have a library’s worth of studies that show how effective prevention programs reduce alcohol and other drug abuse, how class size informs achievement and how community engagement reduces violence. Many in the youth development business have tried for decades to make their case by linking inputs to outcomes that are so important for the social good – such as violence reduction, alcohol and drug prevention, and academic achievement – that any reasonable human being would stand up and call for increasing these efforts.

We’ve been less than persuasive.

Apparently, we’ve been reading the American pulse incorrectly. What seems to matter as the ultimate definition of the social good is money.

Gaining steam in the game of “making the case” is one of the buzz phrases of our time: return on investment. The players are economists applying fancy and complicated statistical procedures to calculate how much money we save or we generate when we give kids a certain type of boost.

Leading the pack in this new approach are cost-benefit studies of investment in early childhood development. The well-known High/Scope study of the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., tracked the lives of low-income children who completed the program and monitored such outcomes as high school completion and crime. The study estimated that the Perry program yielded a return to society of $8.70 for every dollar invested.

Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald of the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis take this a step further. Reanalyzing the Perry data, they estimate that investments in early childhood development yield an annual return rate of 16 percent on each dollar invested. That’s awfully good if you see life through this kind of economic lens.

A 2006 Brookings Institution study estimated that universal and high-quality preschool for all children in the United States would contribute $2 trillion to the nation’s annual gross domestic product by 2080. (“The Effects of Investing in Early Education on Economic Growth,” by William T. Dickens, Isabel V. Sawhill and Jeffrey Tebbs.) Now that sounds like real money.

In my home state of Minnesota, momentum is gathering around “Mind the Gap: Reducing Disparities to Improve Regional Competitiveness in the Twin Cities.” Produced by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, the report persuasively argues that reducing income disparities will build a more competitive work force and “bring more money into the Twin Cities metro area.” The study has galvanized a significant conversation among mayors, legislators and corporate CEOs

Then there’s the argument that we’d better do something before it costs you and me something right out of our pockets. Princeton University economist Cecilia Rouse warns that because high school dropouts earn less than they would have if they had graduated, they cost us $50 billion annually in income taxes not collected by the federal and state governments. Adding salt to the wound, high school dropouts pay $3 billion less in property taxes each year, she says.

Overall, I believe this line of economic inquiry adds some power to the making-the-case arguments for why society should get serious about child development.

What interests me most, however, is what this line of inquiry says about us as a nation. It tells me that we cannot justify raising healthy kids on rational or moral grounds. It tells me that healthy child development is not enough of a goal in its own right; that it is, instead, a means to an end. Money talks.

That’s an old and lasting American theme. I fear this nation will never move forward until our value system shifts and the measure of national success is less about dollars and more about the full development of people.

Come to think of it, this would make for a pretty good foreign policy approach as well. Only if our national priorities change from nourishing the bottom line to nourishing people will our kids thrive and our national security be better ensured.