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The Benefits of Early Learning Programs in Reducing Inequality and Promoting Upward Mobility: the Research of Dr. James Heckman Part 1

The Benefits of Early Learning Programs in Reducing Inequality and Promoting Upward Mobility: the Research of Dr. James Heckman Part 1
Posted on July 20, 2017 by CHS

With much of the national focus on improving the economy, strengthening the middle class, and reducing the deficit, some people concerned about government spending might look at programs like Head Start and wonder what the long-term benefits are from these programs. How do we know low-income children benefit from these programs and how long do the benefits last? With all of the competing priorities in state and federal budgets, why is it so important to invest in these programs?

It is not only important for those professionals who advocate for strong government investments in early learning programs to be well-informed on the research that justifies their cost, but it is also important for parents, particularly those who are low-income, to have access to this information so that they may understand why it is so important that their children attend a high-quality program. Additionally, low-income families empowered with this information and first-hand knowledge of the benefits they see in their child’s progress and development can make powerful advocates for early learning programs at the local, state, and federal levels.  

There is one academic researcher in particular who has been recognized for outstanding work in the area of early learning, Nobel Laureate economist Dr. James Heckman, of the University of Chicago. Dr. Heckman has studied the benefits of early learning programs and characteristics of quality programs for years, publishing numerous peer-reviewed academic papers and gaining national attention for his work. Dr. Heckman takes a broad view of the benefits of quality early learning programs, looking at the benefits of these programs to society as a whole as well as to individual familes, and looking at those benefits across the lifespan of the children who attend these programs.

The premise behind Dr. Heckman’s work is the Heckman Equation:

1) if we, as a society, invest in quality early education for disadvantaged children, thereby developing their cognitive skills, social abilities, and healthy behaviors early in life…..

2) and the benefits from that early learning program are sustained through effective education as disadvantaged children go through school….

3) the result will be a more capable and productive workforce once those same children enter adulthood.

Dr. Heckman has spent decades researching children and families who participate in high-quality programs such as the Abecedarian Project, the ABC/Care program, Head Start, and the Perry Preschool Program, and comparing the outcomes with those children who do not attend a high-quality program.  He has looked at a wide range of outcomes for the child as well as the family, including skill development, social-emotional development, academic outcomes, high-school drop-out rates and college completion, health outcomes, income and workforce participation, and spending on government programs in health, remedial education, social services, child welfare, juvenile justice, and adult incarceration. Across this research, he has produced some remarkable findings about the value of quality early learning programs:

  • A critical time to shape productivity is from birth to age five, when the brain develops rapidly to build the foundation of cognitive and character skills necessary for good health, success in school, career, and life. Early childhood education fosters cognitive skills along with attentiveness, motivation, self-control, and sociability—the character skills that turn knowledge into know-how and people into productive citizens.
  • Many assume that boosting long-term IQ is essential for boosting achievement test scores throughout schooling. Research on the Perry Preschool Program shows this is not the case. Unlike IQ, character skills can be more easily shaped in early childhood education to boost achievement test scores. Enhanced character skills promote learning that boosts achievement test scores. Furthermore, these character skills have a greater effect on later-life outcomes than do cognitive skills.
  • Gaps in cognitive and non-cognitive (social-emotional and character) skills between disadvantaged children and their peers emerge early on in life( in the first three years), and these gaps can persist through school and into adulthood. Skill gaps between low and middle income children that researchers can see at age 18 are often present as early as age 5. However, quality early learning programs and investments in parenting can help reduce or eliminate these gaps between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged children before they enter school.Once disadvantaged children enter school and as they get older, it becomes more and more difficult to narrow this “achievement gap.” Programs such as remedial education are much less effective than quality early childhood programs at narrowing this gap.
  • Likewise, gaps in health and mental health among disadvantaged children can be much more effectively addressedif this intervention happens in the early years. As children get older, health and mental health programs become less effective. Research on the Abcedarian Project early childhood program found significantly better health among children who participated in the program when they reached their 30s, including better health behaviors as well as lower blood pressure, lower obesity rates, and better cholesterol levels.
  • A high-quality birth-to-five program for disadvantaged children can have a return on investment of 13%, meaning that for every dollar invested by the government in these programs, the government can expect to save $13 (after factoring in the cost of the program) because they will not have to spend on social programs for that person (for example remedial education and juvenile justice) later on in the child’s life. This is a much higher return on investment than K-12 education or adult job training programs. Additionally, that child will go on to earn more over the course of their lifetime, accruing benefits to society through increased productivity.
  • Those children will be more likely to enter school with the social and school readiness skills they need to succeed, complete high school, attend college, and earn more in adulthood. Across the whole lifespan of that child, the total savings in government spending will be significant.
  • These benefits and outcomes are not just theoretical – they have been measured by following individual children through early learning programs, as they entered school, and into adulthood.
  • For example, a 5% increase in male high school graduation rates is estimated to save California $753 million in annual incarceration costs and crime-related expenditures.
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