• Featured Chart
  • March 27, 2023

Early childhood education and crime reduction

Evidence from the Head Start rollout in North Carolina.

Source: weedezign

Many studies have shown the cognitive benefits of early childhood education. In particular, the evidence demonstrates that small-scale model programs have improved everything from test scores to high school graduation rates. 

According to a paper in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, investing in early childhood education can also lead to a reduction in criminal behavior later in life. The authors, John Anders, Andrew C. Barr, and Alexander A. Smith, looked at variation in the rollout of Head Start in North Carolina to estimate its long-run impact on adult criminality.

Figure 2 from the paper shows the results of the event study of Head Start’s effect on criminal conviction.



Figure 2 from Anders et al. (2023)


The y-axis shows the impact of Head Start on the probability of a serious conviction by age 35. The estimates come from comparing individuals born in counties and cohorts with varying levels of availability to Head Start. In North Carolina, Head Start was not available to 4-year-olds prior to 1965, but by 1968, eligible 4-year-olds in 55 North Carolina counties had access to Head Start. The x-axis indicates the year relative to Head Start’s rollout in North Carolina counties.

The red squares represent estimates for high-poverty counties—those with a poverty rate above the median in 1960—and the black circles represent estimates for low-poverty counties—those below the median. The vertical bars are 95 percent confidence intervals.

Prior to the launch of Head Start, neither group shows any trend in the probability of conviction. But after the program was introduced in the late 1960s, there is evidence of a reduction in criminal behavior for kids from high-poverty counties.

Overall, the authors find that Head Start lowered the conviction rate by 1.3 percentage points in high-poverty areas—a reduction of roughly 20 percent.

The Effect of Early Childhood Education on Adult Criminality: Evidence from the 1960s through 1990s appears in the February 2023 issue of the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.