Big societal investments with big returns

In 1944 Congress passed what became known as the G.I. Bill, which provided a number of benefits for returning World War II veterans. From the time the bill passed till 1956, 2.2 million veterans used the G. I. Bill’s education benefits to attend colleges or universities. Most of those veterans would not have been able to afford college otherwise. My dad was one of those, and he became the first person in his family to graduate from college.
The G. I. Bill was a massive public investment that made possible a huge increase in the number of Americans with post-secondary degrees. The country has benefited from that initial post-war investment ever since.

In 1956, thanks largely to the efforts of President Eisenhower, Congress passed legislation that enabled the creation of the Interstate Highway System. We continue to benefit from that massive public investment in physical infrastructure that greatly reduced travel time in the U.S. and made possible substantial increases in productivity.

In 1961, President Kennedy issued a challenge to NASA to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade. The massive public investment that followed President Kennedy’s challenge resulted in Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” in July 1969. The new or improved technologies that resulted from the research and development needed to accomplish that goal led to numerous other developments that continue to provide benefits to our society.

Contrast those large public investments in higher education, physical infrastructure, and research and development focused on a specific goal with similarly huge amounts that have been spent since the 1960s on a wide array of social programs and supports to alleviate poverty. Despite the enormous expenditures, the official poverty rate is higher today than it was in the late 1960s.

Is there anything we can do that might enable us to start reducing poverty? While there are no quick fixes or panaceas, we have become increasingly convinced that, given the current situation, an important piece of a long term solution would be a sustained, substantial investment in high quality early childhood development opportunities for children in low income households.

According to Ready Nation, a business partnership for early childhood and economic success that is part of America’s Promise Alliance:

  • “Disadvantaged children can be 18 months behind their peers by the time they start kindergarten.
  • Children not ready for kindergarten are half as likely to read well by third grade.
  • Children not reading proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out.”

In a September 14, 2013 Opinionator piece on, Professor James Heckman, a Nobel Laureate economist at the University of Chicago who has studied this issue for decades, wrote, “Quality early childhood programs for disadvantaged children more than pay for themselves in better education, health, and economic outcomes.” There is an enormous amount of data supporting that statement.

We see the need for such opportunities every day in our work with low income moms in the Excel Centers and Nurse-Family Partnership. If we made a large enough commitment in the U.S. over an extended period of time to expand the availability of high quality early childhood development programs for kids in low income households, there is a strong probability we would substantially reduce generational poverty and a lot of the social problems associated with it. And, as with the investments in higher education, infrastructure, and research and development in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, our country would benefit from those investments for decades.