• Chart of the Week
  • December 9, 2019

From start to finish


The importance of pre-K programs and their long-run effects on kids’ lives are starting to come into focus. Some research indicates that Head Start—the flagship early childhood program established in the 1960s as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty—improved educational attainment, boosted incomes, and even reduced crime.

But later schooling could be critical for securing these benefits, according to a paper in the November issue of the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy.

Authors Rucker Johnson and Kirabo Jackson found that Head Start increased earnings more when followed by access to better-funded schools, and K-12 spending was more effective when preceded by Head Start.

The researchers used the rollout of Head Start and court-mandated spending increases for public schools to estimate the long-run effects on education, poverty, and incarceration.

Figure 7 from their paper shows how Head Start and K-12 spending interacted to impact adult wages (measured in logarithmic changes).



Figure 7 from Johnson and Jackson (2019)


In Panel A, the grey columns indicate the impact of Head Start on poor children as the amount of K-12 resources varied. Head Start boosted wages 17 percent when coupled with a 10 percent increase in K-12 spending. The wage increase dropped to 2.7 percent when spending decreased by 10 percent, in which case the effect is no longer statistically significant

Similarly, a 10 percent increase in K-12 resources went much further when poor students also had access to Head Start. Students who got a spending increase, as represented by the white columns, and Head Start access had 20 percent higher wages. When they didn’t have such access, the same public spending boosted wages by 13 percent. 

As expected, the interaction effects for richer children (Panel B) were not significant, because non-poor children were not eligible for Head Start.

Earlier and later educational spending clearly complement each other, and it may also help explain why preschool programs like Head Start sometimes don’t work if kids don’t have enough investment at every stage of their education.