The Case for Universal Pre-K

A Necessary Step in the Fight Against Inequality

By Nathaniel Epstein

It is no secret in this country that children grow up differently from one another. Some grow up in safe neighborhoods with attentive parenting, a strong support system, and the resources to help them grow healthily into childhood and adolescence. These kids’ lives are by no means perfect, though they have the basic framework needed to advance comfortably into their next phases of life: education and adulthood.

Then there are kids who are born not so lucky. They grow up in dangerous, fractured neighborhoods, void of attentive parenting—from neglect or circumstances beyond the parents’ control—resulting in a very thin support system. Deep inequalities exist in this country, and no one group is hit harder than children. Only now, however, are we learning how these disparities affect children.

Children who grow up in low-stimulus environments are much more likely to struggle in school, drop out, be exposed to gangs, bear children at a young age, and generally fall back into the cycle of poverty. Stresses on children contribute to intergenerational poverty. This is not at all to say that all children growing up in poverty receive inadequate attention from their parents; they are simply more likely to than someone from a middle-class or rich family. The next and most promising step to addressing entrenched poverty is the implementation of universal early childhood education and Pre-Kindergarten programs.

Early childhood education and Pre-K programs are crucial for alleviating poverty, because they can help close the gap between children from low-, middle-, and high-income families. This ambiguous “gap” between classes that the socially-conscious always refer to in discussions of inequality manifests itself quite literally in the childhood education sphere in the context of what education researchers call the word gap. The word gap refers to the disparity among social classes in the amount of words kids hear when growing up. Verbal parent–child interactions not only show children warmth, love, and affection, but also improve cognitive development.

Helping to break the cycle of poverty and school-to-prison pipeline with early childhood education in just some of these children’s lives will mean less taxpayer money spent in the future.

Certain uncontrollable socio-economic factors, like a parent’s need to work two jobs to make ends meet, can limit the amount of face time parents and children spend together, decreasing the amount of time they have available to talk together. Researchers at Stanford found that children as young as two growing up in households of lower-income, lesser-educated parents were already six months behind their more fortunate peers in language development. The report also stated that by age five, those children had already fallen behind by more than two years in their cognitive language development.

When parents to do not have the time to commit to their child’s verbal skills, children benefit hugely from being around a teacher who will read and speak to them for hours a day. The exposure to language can go a long way to helping kids from low-income areas improve their chances of getting out of poverty. In a report published by Head Start, the federal Pre-K program, it was found that “at the end of third grade, the most striking sustained subgroup finding was related to children from high-risk households. For this subgroup, children in the three-year old cohort demonstrated sustained cognitive impacts across all the years from pre-K through 3rd grade.” The academic success pre-K provides is extremely encouraging, but the remunerations are not all educational.

While the academic benefits are important, Pre-K would also provide crucial help to kids in a way that is not so easily quantified. A large part of the benefits of Pre-K to low-income kids is the social and emotional benefits they get from being in the program. The best Pre-K programs in the country focus on the child as an individual and seek to turn him or her into a more complete and competent student. In Pre-K, children learn to become students. The students participate in exercises that promote teamwork, self-control, sharing, talking through conflict, and self-esteem building. They are essentially teaching the children how to be productive members of society.

These skills are the building blocks to a successful career and life. Learning how to be vigilant even when the task at hand is difficult or how to work well with others are crucial parts of life success. For some children, these skills and ideas are pushed on them by their parents and they become internalized at a young age. Parents teach them to share, play with others, and monitor their general social behavior. Then there are kids who come home to no one. No one is there to show them these basic values that are so crucial to future success. It is one of the sad ironies of this issue that the kids who really need Pre-K the most are the ones with the least access to it.

Additionally, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to come into contact with scenes and events that traumatize them. These four- and five-year-olds see things that no children should ever see. The stress caused by these events, labeled by psychologists as “toxic stress,” is a major cause of acting out or non-social behavior in children who have seen terrible things. Pre-K’s socialization can teach children and parents strategies to deal with this behavior. These kids can learn to control their emotions, express themselves healthily and gain the confidence to perform under pressure. In states like Oklahoma, which extends high quality Pre-K to 74% of children, teachers are trained to correct non-social behavior with compassion by redirecting the child in question back into the group so that he or she can learn to socialize in a healthy manner.

The idea of universal Pre-K is not only educationally but also economically sound. These programs are actually inexpensive when you break it down on an individual basis. New York Mayor Bill Deblasio’s plan for universal Pre-K would only require New York City to raise taxes on people earning $500,000 a year by just .5% and would also include the funding of all afterschool programs for middle schoolers. This is a small price to pay for a program that has the potential to do so much good. It is also a fact that investing in these kids earlier will save all taxpayers money in the future. The kids who grow up in poor neighborhoods and are poorly educated and socialized have a much higher chance of being unemployed, doing drugs, or ending up in prison. Helping to break the cycle of poverty and school-to-prison pipeline with early childhood education in just some of these children’s lives will mean less taxpayer money spent in the future.

There is also significant statistical proof that a well-conceived Pre-K program can have significant impact on the lives of poor children. A study done by researchers at UCLA on the impact of Head Start found that, “participation in Head Start is associated with a significantly increased probability of completing high school and attending college as well as elevated earnings in one’s early twenties. African Americans who participated in Head Start are significantly less likely to have been charged or convicted of a crime.” Another study that began tracking low income student’s progress from Pre-K onward called the Perry School Project found that for every one dollar invested in Pre-K education for low income children, seven to 12 dollars were put back into society.

Pre-K programs can have a huge impact on a child’s life. A fairly substantial number of children live in poverty today in the United States. It is estimated that there are approximately 16 million children living in poverty in the United States, a number that skew heavily towards black and Latino populations: 42% of black children grow up in poverty in the United States and 37% of Latino children grow up impoverished. This is not to say that universal Pre-K is a cure for poverty or that it will wipe poverty away forever, however it is potentially a big step in the right direction.

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