USA Today asks, "Why not fix the family instead?"

Barack Obama promised to expand government spending on pre-kindergarten education to make it “universal,” a proposal certain to warm the hearts of middle Americans.  After all, who doesn’t want to help our children get ahead?  However, that prompts two questions — will it actually help, and could we take more effective and less costly action elsewhere?  USA Today addressed the first question yesterday, and argued that the real danger to toddlers isn’t a lack of pre-K education; it’s broken families:

Children are most likely to succeed in school when pushed by parents who provide stability, help with schooling, and instill an education and work ethic. But for decades now, the American family has been breaking down.

Two-fifths of children born in the USA are born to unmarried mothers, an eightfold increase since 1960. Many succeed thanks to the heroic efforts of strong, motivated single parents and other relatives. But research shows that children of single parents suffer disproportionately high poverty rates, impaired development and low performance in school.

Ron Haskins, an expert on children and families at the Brookings Institution, calls single parenthood a “little motor pushing up the poverty rate.” In 2011, the rate for children of single mothers was more than four times greater than that for children of married couples.

Researchers at Princeton and Columbia, following 5,000 children born to married and unmarried parents, have found that the effects of single parenthood seep into every aspect of kids’ lives.

A typical pattern in these “fragile families” looks like this: When a child is born, most fathers and mothers are in a committed relationship. By the time the child reaches 5, though, many fathers have disappeared. As the mothers move on to new relationships, the children face more instability, often with new siblings born to different fathers. Boys without strong male role models are more likely to turn to gangs and crime.

Single mothers read less to their children, are more likely to use harsh discipline and are less likely to maintain stable routines, such as a regular bedtime. All these behaviors are important predictors of children’s health and development.

If more pre-K education provided an antidote to these ills, then it might still be worth it.  However, USA Today alludes to studies showing that it actually does little or no good, and Charles Murray at Bloomberg provides a deeper analysis:

“Study after study shows that the earlier a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road,” said U.S. President Barack Obama in Feb. 14 speech in Decatur, Georgia. “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on — boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, reducing violent crime.”

Obama wants to help our nation’s children flourish. So do I. So does everyone who is aware of the large number of children who are not flourishing. There are just two problems with his solution: The evidence used to support the positive long-term effects of early childhood education is tenuous, even for the most intensive interventions. And for the kind of intervention that can be implemented on a national scale, the evidence is zero. …

IHDP provided a level of early intervention that couldn’t possibly be replicated nationwide, but it gave us by far the most thorough test of intensive early intervention to date.

The follow-ups at ages 2 and 3 were positive, with large gains in cognitive functioning for the treatment group. But by age 5, those gains had attenuated. Where are things now? In the most recent report, the children in the study had reached 18. For the two-thirds of the sample who weighed no more than 2,000 grams (4.4 pounds) at birth, almost all of the outcome measures weren’t even in the right direction: The control group did slightly better. For those who weighed 2,001 to 2,500 grams at birth, the best news the analysts could find were positive differences on a math test and on a self-report of risky behaviors that reached statistical significance but were substantively small. Combine the results for both groups, and the IHDP showed no significant effects on any of the reported measures — not cognitive tests, measures of behavior problems and academic achievement, or arrest, incarceration and school- dropout rates.

Should we conclude that the IHDP results were depressed because of infants with serious neurologic complications, and that it would have worked on neurologically normal infants? The researchers ran the analysis on children who were free of significant neurological problems and found no difference.

Another possibility is that the aggregate results were damped down because some of the IHDP children were not socioeconomically disadvantaged. Were the results any better when the disadvantaged members of the sample were analyzed separately? The 18-year follow-up report is silent on that question. I can’t help but assume that if the results for the disadvantaged children had been better, we would have heard about them. Based on the published record, the IHDP results give no reason for optimism about even the most intensive early education approaches.

In fact, the federal government studied the impact of their largest, long-term intervention in this area, Head Start.  The results?  No lasting benefit could be found, and in some areas, it actually hurt.  As Murray stated later in his piece, the program may have given a small percentage of children who lived in at-risk environments a few hours in a safer place, and that does have some value.

However, that brings us back to the point of USA Today’s editorial.  Children from broken homes are more likely to live in relatively unsafe environments due to poverty, attention issues, and so on.  Instead of extending the government penumbra and taking kids out of the home for just a few hours of the day for programs that provide no other benefit, why aren’t we focusing on finding ways to incentivize marriage and disincentivize divorce and parental irresponsibility? If we want to improve the learning capabilities of the next generation, we would find much more potential in that approach.

Update: An astute observation from Hot Air reader Neil:

While I agree with all your comments regarding “fixing the family” I believe you’re missing the real rationale behind the creation of a federally funded universal Pre-K program; namely to generate a 100,000 new members of the SEIU; the consequences of which are clear, regardless of programmatic success.

Yes, the rationale behind government expansion is usually government expansion, with all of the usual cui bono suspects.