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David Kirp: A way to break the cycle of poverty

Intervening in children’s lives early can help break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

(Rachel Levit | The New York Times)

Inequalities persist across generations — children who grow up in poverty are likelier than their middle-class peers to end up poor and in ill health as adults. But demography isn’t destiny.

Social safety net programs, including quality early education, food stamps and Medicaid, can change the trajectory of children’s lives. What’s even more important, a spate of recent studies shows that the benefits stemming from these programs reverberate into the next generation, breaking the cycle of poverty.

The long-term impact of prekindergarten is well established and widely known. That’s why it’s high on the national political agenda.

Half a century ago, 123 three- and four-year-olds, all of them African American and all from low-income families who lived on the wrong side of the tracks in Ypsilanti, Mich., participated in an experiment. About half attended a pioneering early education program called Perry Preschool, while the control group did not have the same opportunity. Remarkably, researchers have been able to track the lives of most of these children ever since. The fact that lifelong benefits — including greater academic success, higher earnings and better health — began with two years of high-quality preschool has commanded widespread attention.

A study published this summer by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman and his colleagues takes the implications of Perry a giant step further. This research demonstrates that the children of the Perry preschoolers are also better off because of their parents’ experience.

As the Perry preschoolers grew up, they became better educated and developed greater socio-emotional skills than the control group. They became better parents — their children grew up in more stable two-parent families that earned, on average, about $10,000 more a year — enough to lift many of them out of poverty.

This healthy upbringing has had a prolonged impact on the children of the Perry preschoolers. Compared to the offspring of the control group, they were substantially less likely to have been suspended or assigned to special education, and more likely to have graduated from high school. Now in their 20s, they’re more likely to have jobs and be in good health and less likely to be divorced.

The bottom line: Good early education accelerates upward social mobility across generations.

A flurry of studies demonstrates that the reverberations of other safety-net programs also echo in the next generation.

Case in point: expanding Medicaid eligibility for low-income families. In a recent American Economic Review article, Andrew Goodman-Bacon, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank, concludes that, as much as a half-century later, early childhood Medicaid eligibility reduces mortality and disability, increases employment and improves health. Since its inception in the 1960s, “Medicaid has saved the government more than its original cost and saved more than 10 million quality adjusted life years.”

Another study has found that when the children who grew up in Medicaid-eligible households were in their 20s, they were more likely to have gone to college than those whose families, despite their similar economic circumstances, had the misfortune of living in a state where their families were not eligible for Medicaid. Now they are earning more and paying more taxes.

Here’s another example — A Norwegian study demonstrated the decades-long impact on infants who, during their first year, benefited from their mothers’ having had the opportunity to enroll in free mother and child health care centers. In the succeeding years, these youngsters grew taller and stayed in school longer than those whose mothers did not receive the same support. At age 40, they are in better health.

The earned-income tax credit has also been a boon for children. Add $1000 to a family’s earned-income tax credit when a youth is 13-to-18 years old, Jacob Bastian and Katherine Michelmore have found, and the likelihood increases that they will graduate from high school, complete college, and have a decent-paying job.

Critics have used the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as a punching bag, the nanny state exemplified, ever since the passage of the Food Stamp Act in 1964. This critique is flat-out wrong. A 2018 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that SNAP has helped to dramatically reduce child poverty and that twice as many children would live in deep poverty without the program.

Recent research shows that the food stamp program has had a decades-long effect on the health, economic self-sufficiency and the overall well-being of children who came of age in those families. These children are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college, earn more and stay out of prison.

Hilary Hoynes, a public policy and economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and her colleagues calculate that for every dollar that the program costs, the long-run benefits to the child — increased income and longer life expectancy — are a whopping $56. This year benefits for food stamps will rise 27 percent, on average. Not only will those extra dollars keep food on the table for millions of families; their children will get a lifelong boost.

While statistics can be numbing, the bottom line deserves headline attention — in the long term, social safety net programs for families with young children reduce the need for government support over the course of two generations.

These studies have been buried in academic obscurity, but they deserve a wider audience. The research convincingly establishes that every dollar invested in safety net initiatives for children — whether in high-quality early education, Medicaid or food stamps — can change the arc of their lives. That’s the surest way to break the cycle of poverty.


David Kirp is a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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