ABSTRACT. The importance of early childhood education for the cognitive and social/behavior development of children is widely recognized, and in recent years increasing attention has been given to the economic impacts of the education of young children. This article examines the studies of model early childhood education programs that yield high economic returns and the large scale studies of Head Start and other programs that demonstrate more complex results. From these studies it is clear that high quality programs make substantial long-run contributions to the lives of children and yield high returns to society’s investments in these programs. At the same time, it is important for advocates of early childhood education programs not to expect (or claim) too much for those programs. The article also establishes that, aside from the long-term gains from high quality programs, there are immediate economic gains to society from child care programs, even if those programs are only “adequate.” The gains come in terms of the greater labor force participation of parents of young children (primarily mothers) and in terms of the parents’ greater productivity. Also, under some circumstances, public expenditures on early child care programs can provide a significant, short-run demand stimulus. There is a strong case for greater public investment in early childhood education programs, but a question remains as to whether the emphasis should be on universal programs or means tested programs (i.e., programs targeted at children from low-income families). This article presents several arguments supporting an emphasis on universal programs. These arguments are based, for example, on evidence that the gains for children are greatest in programs that include children from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. These arguments also include the point that there is no less reason to provide universal programs for young children than there is to provide universal K-12 education. Furthermore, the article point out that while the income gains from early childhood education – to the children, to their families, and to society – are important, as with K-12 education there are other social gains from these programs that should not be obscured. Particularly important are the potential income equalizing impact of the programs and their positive contribution to the quality of life of the children and their families. pp. 11–47
JEL codes: H52; H75; I21

Keywords: economics of education; economic development; public investment; education policy; distribution; inequality

How to cite: MacEwan, Arthur (2015), "Early Childhood Education, Economic Development, and the Need for Universal Programs: With a Focus on New England," Economics, Management, and Financial Markets 10(1): 11–47.

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Department of Economics and
Center for Social Policy,
University of Massachusetts Boston

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