Why Access to Pre-K Matters for Economic Mobility

Just under half of three- and four-year-olds in the United States are enrolled in pre-K (public or private). According to the Prosperity Now Scorecard, that figure has remained largely stagnant for the past 10 years.

Some will ask: so what? Do kids even learn that much in pre-K? Doesn’t education really start in Kindergarten?

In fact, pre-K matters. Studies show that beginning as soon as preschool, students who start behind academically are more likely to stay behind, and this gap only increases over time, emphasizing the importance of early childhood education on a student’s overall education trajectory.

Figure 1. Percentage of Three- and Four-Year Olds Enrolled in Preschool (Public or Private) in the US, 2005-16

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Source: American Community Survey accessed via Prosperity Now Scorecard

Without early childhood education, the chances of economic prosperity decrease. A study in 2013 found that students who attended preschool were much more likely to stay in school and get a higher education than their peers who skipped preschool. People with higher educational attainment are more likely to earn higher incomes and find work more easily.

Early childhood education can also improve future financial decision-making by developing executive function—the cognitive capacity to plan, defer gratification, focus attention and remember information. Executive function supports impulse control and future-oriented skills, which in turn provide a foundation for performing financial tasks such as setting financial goals, saving and following a budget as an adult.

The association between early childhood education and higher education enrollment is strengthened by looking at congressional district-level data made available by the Scorecard. Take a look at the 10 congressional districts with the highest and lowest early childhood education enrollment rates:

Highest 10 Districts

  1. DC's At Large District (79.6%)
  2. California's 33rd District (78.9%)
  3. New York's 12th District (78.0%)
  4. Connecticut's 4th District (73.3%)
  5. California's 12th District (71.9%)
  6. New York's 10th District (71.8%)
  7. New Jersey's 11th District (71.3%)
  8. New Jersey's 10th District (69.9%)
  9. New Jersey's 7th District (68.6%)
  10. California's 18th District (68.4%)

Lowest 10 Districts

  1. Arizona's 7th District (22.6%)
  2. Nevada's 1st District (25.8%)
  3. Washington's 4th District (28.7%)
  4. Washington's 10th District (31.0%)
  5. Alabama's 4th District (31.1%)
  6. Arizona's 3rd District (31.7%)
  7. Kentucky's 5th District (32.1%)
  8. Idaho's 1st District (32.2%)
  9. California's 41st District (32.3%)
  10. Idaho's 2nd District (32.4%)

This map shows how early childhood education is spread by congressional district across the country: 

Figure 2. Percentage of Three- and Four-Year-Olds Enrolled in Preschool (Public or Private) by Congressional District

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First, you can see a glaring geographic disparity in pre-K enrollment: the 10 Congressional districts with the highest childhood enrollment tend to be either on the east coast or in California. The lowest 10 districts are more dispersed throughout the country.

The prevalence of parents with at least a bachelor’s degree—who could be more likely to value early childhood education for their children—is one possible driver for differences in pre-K enrollment. Nine out of the 10 congressional districts with the highest rates of early childhood enrollment are in the 30 districts with the most four-year degrees, whereas the lowest 10 districts are concentrated in the 30 districts with the lowest amount of four-year degrees.  

A likely driver of the early childhood education gap is income. The lowest 10 congressional districts for pre-K enrollment are concentrated in the bottom half of all districts by median income, with the highest median income just below $60,000. In contrast, median incomes in the highest 10 districts for pre-K enrollment reach over $110K and over half are in the top 15 districts by median income. 

This suggests that many parents aren’t sending their children to pre-K because of affordability, making early childhood education less accessible to low-income communities. This becomes a dangerous cycle for children with disadvantaged backgrounds: forgoing pre-K decreases the likelihood of higher future earnings, which in turn increases the likelihood of forgoing pre-K. That sets low-income families up for being left out of prosperity across generations.  

What can be done to make pre-K more inclusive? Head Start State Funding and Universal Pre-Kindergarten are two promising solutions.

Head Start has demonstrated its effectiveness in helping low-income children prepare for Kindergarten by providing services to more than a million children every year, allowing them to get early education support. A federally funded program, Head Start still requires a 20% funds match by the state. With the state fund, more students can be enrolled in the program. Only 12 states currently provide a supplemental Head Start grant.

Universal Pre-Kindergarten has been recommended by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). Rather than implement universal pre-K right away, the Institute suggests increasing the income threshold to fit in more families and offer the program to “high need” communities first. Currently, only two states require pre-K to be universal without income requirements.

With the midterm elections coming soon, it’s imperative to educate people on the importance of early childhood education and to urge states to adopt policies that equalize access to it. Higher access to pre-K could play an important part in steering children’s life trajectories towards financial stability.

See where your congressional district ranks on early childhood education in your state.

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