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James Ewinger
By James Ewinger June 29, 2011

Rep. Tim Ryan says Head Start programs are cost beneficial

As part of Congress’ budget debates, Rep. Tim Ryan cautioned against major cuts while the economy is weak, and said he especially opposed cutting funds for Head Start.

Head Start is a national program that tries to bolster school readiness through educational, health, nutritional, social and other services to enrolled children and families.

While interviewing Ryan on Fox News, Greta Van Sustern criticized Head Start because of the academic performance of 8th graders in the Washington, D.C., school system.

Ryan defended the program, claiming that "for every dollar we invest in Head Start, we get $5 to $7 back into our economy."

That kind of return got our attention, so we decided to follow the statistical threads to see if Ryan’s claim is backed by whole cloth or solid evidence.

We started with Ryan’s staff. They cited a paper from 2007 by scholars Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago and Deborah A. Phillips of Georgetown University, which also alludes to other studies.

The researchers conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the program and concluded that that Head Start’s return to taxpayers is greater than their investment in the program. They based their conclusion on studies that compared the performance over decades of siblings who enrolled in Head Start, and siblings that did not, for example.

Among their findings:

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  • Children exposed to the Head Start program were more likely to finish high school.

  • The are likely to have better jobs with greater earning power.

  • They are less likely to commit crimes as adults.

While Head Start doesn’t create jobs itself, children exposed to Head Start are more able to compete for better jobs than those without that exposure, they concluded.

The Ludwig-Phillips paper also cited a study of Perry Preschool, an early care and education program in Michigan similar to Head Start, charting the progress of 3- and 4-year-olds through two years, and also examined their success rate through age 40.

The researchers did issue a few caveats.

Studying program participants over several decades allowed them to follow outcomes into adolescence and adulthood to assess longterm impacts, but they acknowledge that some of the data available to study children from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s was limited.

Also, Head Start has changed over time, making it a challenge to apply the data to children in the program now. Forecasting outcomes from kids in Head Start now involves use of "a number of untestable assumptions," they said.

Nonetheless, they concluded that with the average cost of Head Start at $9,000 per child, the early education and social intervention programs "are likely sufficient to generate benefits in excess of costs in both the short- and long-term."

A letter sent to Congress in March 2011, signed by more than 300 researchers from around the country, also supported the notion that Head Start is cost effective. It cited a $7 to $9 return for every dollar invested in the programs based on the findings of 12 different studies and reports.

They estimated that the program’s required medical screenings, vaccinations and emphasis reduced annual Medicaid expenses by $232 per family.

And commentary about the scholarly tract by Ludwig and Phillips in a 2007 edition of Social Policy Report suggests that Head Start might have low-balled its own effectiveness.

Commentary by W. Steven Barnett of Rutgers University on the Ludwig-Phillips paper cites studies of three different programs similar to Head Start, one of which found a 2.5 to 1 return ($2.50 for each $1), one that estimated a 10.1 to 1 return, and one that noted a 16.1 to 1 return.

Each study examined a different public early care and education program and based its findings on myriad categories including earnings by people who went through the programs in early childhood.

So how does Ryan’s statement fare on the Truth-O-Meter?

The statement is accurate.

Numerous studies support the notion that Head Start is cost beneficial. Ryan’s numbers land right in the middle of the cost-benefit estimates. While some are as high as $16.10 for each dollar spent, there are some as low as $2.50.

That the researchers caution that forecasting outcomes from kids in Head Start now is difficult is an additional piece of information. While there’s decades of data, programs have also changed over time.

On the Truth-O-Meter, we rate Ryan’s claim as Mostly True.

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Rep. Tim Ryan says Head Start programs are cost beneficial

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