Professor James Heckman and colleagues from the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics released a working paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzing the effects of two identical, randomized-controlled preschool experiments conducted in North Carolina in the 1970’s. Spanning from birth to age five, these programs provided comprehensive developmental resources to predominately disadvantaged African-American children, including nutrition, parental support, access to healthcare and early learning.


The research team found these programs had the potential to deliver a 13.7% per child, per year return on investment through better outcomes in health, education, and employment. The economic return of the two programs was substantially higher than had been previously found for preschool programs serving 3- to 4-year-olds, which have previously estimated only a 7-10% return on investment.

Although results varied by gender, children enrolled in the program saw marked improvements in outcomes, including permanent gains in IQ, higher rates of graduation, higher income levels, lower drug use and participation in crime, and lower blood pressure and hypertension.

Implications for Policy and Practice

It is estimated that approximately 19% of all African-American children today would be eligible for a program similar to the ones studied here. And while the costs of comprehensive early childhood education are relatively high, these investments pay off in the short- and long-run.

“Child poverty is growing in the United States; investing in comprehensive birth-to-five early childhood education is a powerful and cost-effective way to mitigate its negative consequences on child development and adult opportunity.

Elements of the ABC/CARE program exist today through a number of often disjointed home visiting, child well-being, nutrition, early learning, childcare and preschool programs. Policymakers would be wise to coordinate these early childhood resources into a scaffolding of developmental support for disadvantaged children and provide access to all in need.”

By increasing access to high-quality programming early on, local and state leaders can more effectively combat the negative effects of child poverty, and improve the health and well-being of their communities at large.

Related Evidence

  • Published May 11, 2017

    ABC/CARE was a comprehensive, birth through age five early childhood development program that included early health, nutrition, parental education and early childhood education. Complementing their recent cost-benefit analysis of the ABC/CARE program, Dr. James Heckman and his team look at the differences in outcomes based on gender in their paper, Gender Differences in the Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program.

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