Obama says preschool an economic investment

December 15, 2014

Boys build towers out of blocks at a state preschool program.

Backed by a new report from his Council of Economic Advisers, President Barack Obama is framing his push for universal preschool and early education as an economic issue that will yield extraordinary financial benefits not only to children and parents, but to the nation as a whole.

The council projects an increase in the Gross Domestic Product by nearly half a percentage point, with the potential to generate tens of billions of dollars annually into the national economy.

For years, a range of economists – most notably University of Chicago professor and Nobel Prize winner James Heckman – have made similar arguments.   Other presidents – most notably President Lyndon Johnson in his push for Head Start and President Bill Clinton in promoting expanded support for daycare – have made early education a major theme of their administration’s, but return on investment has not been as central a part of their rationale as President Obama has made it in his domestic policy agenda.

“Early education is one of the best investments we can make not just in a child’s future, but in our country,” Obama said in a speech at the White House Summit on Early Education last week. In fact, the president is calling his campaign for universal access to preschool programs for all 4-year-olds “Invest in US” – with “US” a play on the word referring to both children and the United States.

The 33-page Council of Economic Advisers report, titled “The Economics of Early Childhood Investments,” argues that the economic benefits of  investments in early education programs are not realized immediately, but sometimes decades later. “When we invest in early childhood programs, it is not just enrolled children and their families who benefit,” the report states. “The research highlighted here suggests that the investments we make in children today could benefit our economy in the long run by expanding our skilled workforce and increasing their earnings.”

The report says that investments in early education would increase the GDP from .16 to .44 percent, mainly as a result of higher earnings that participants would earn as adults.  It argues that if low-income families enrolled their children in preschool at the same rate as higher-income families, enrollment in preschool would increase by 13 percent.

That, the report says, would be “equivalent to adding between $28 billion and $74 billion per year based on current GDP.”

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