Researchers have long known that early childhood programs lead to higher educational attainment, which in turn affects adult outcomes like lifetime earnings, crime rates, and welfare use. Is it possible then to put a number on the economic costs and benefits of these programs?

A Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) team led by Stephanie Lee concluded that early childhood programs conclusively accrue more benefits than costs, and can actually reduce public expenditures in a number of areas.

Lee and her team analyzed outcomes from early childhood programs with long-term follow-up, and concluded “investment in early education programmes can yield substantial benefits in the long-term that outweigh the costs of investment. These benefits could occur in [various] areas, impacting society through savings to taxpayers in a variety of public sectors, as well as providing benefits to the participants and others.”[i] 

When examining specifically low-income children, they found “reductions in juvenile and adult crime, child abuse and neglect, out-of-home placements and teen pregnancy, as well as increases in employment in adulthood.”[ii]

Researchers also provide a holistic framework for interpreting the broader effects of early childhood programs. Less crime and abuse means that states can spend less on courts, jails, police, and investigations. Residents would lose less money to property loss and medical and mental health expenses, and have a better quality of life.[iii]

The authors calculated that in the long run, taxpayers will receive a return of $3.60 for every dollar spent.[iv]

So how can states put these theories into practice?

In the mid-1990s, the state of Washington began incorporating evidence-based programs into their juvenile justice system, education and child welfare system reforms. In 2005, state legislators responded to forecasts that the state would need two new prison facilities costing a total of $500 million by investing over $22 million in the Early Childhood and Education Assistance Program for low-income three- and four-year olds. After this investment, Washington preliminarily lowered the forecast to just one new prison facility.[v]

The authors suggest that realistically, policy makers should combine such evidence-based prevention programs with later interventions like finding work for the unemployed. Time will show just how much this investment pays off for Washington, but the cost-benefit analysis of social programs is one tool state lawmakers should consider adding to their kit.

[i] Stephanie Lee, Elizabeth Drake, Annie Pennucci, Gretchen Bjornstad and Triin Edovald. (2012). Economic evaluation of early childhood education in a policy context. Journal of Children's Services. Available at:

[ii] See note i.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.