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White House Report to Congress Cites IPR Faculty Researchers

Studies offer evidence for policies to tackle childhood inequality

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IPR’s purpose is to catalyze path-breaking research on the most pressing social policy issues, and to communicate those findings to inform policy discussions. I’m delighted that this work plays such a prominent role in current discussions in Washington.”

David Figlio
IPR Director

White House ERP

The White House Council of Economic Advisers' 2016 economic report to Congress last month emphasized the need to reduce inequality in America, starting with children from an early age. The report included evidence to support policies aiming to do just that from some of the nation’s leading academics, including six IPR experts.

“We must choose policies that not only make us stronger today, but also reflect the kind of country we aspire to be in the coming decades,” President Barack Obama wrote in his introduction to the report. 

To craft policies that would promote equality of opportunity for all Americans, the President’s Council of Economic Advisers outlines a policy blueprint in the subsequent 424 pages of their annual report.

Within that blueprint, the three White House economists, Jason Furman, Sandra Black, and Jay Shambaugh, offer evidence for effective policies to address critical opportunity gaps during early childhood, where they have found significant and wide-ranging benefits for parents and children. All of the cited IPR research centers on the especially important issue of how to address the economic challenges facing low-income children, especially in terms of early health, nutrition, and education.

“IPR’s purpose is to catalyze path-breaking research on the most pressing social policy issues, and to communicate those findings to inform policy discussions,” said IPR Director David Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and of Economics. “I’m delighted that this work plays such a prominent role in current discussions in Washington.” 

Early Health Disparities
"Studies of birth weight find that it is not only a good predictor of short-term health and mortality, but also of longer-term health and human capital variables, including school achievement and earnings. (p. 159–60)"

Figlio Black
David Figlio talks with Sandra Black, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, in Washington, D.C.

According to research by Figlio, IPR economist Jonathan Guryan, IPR postdoctoral fellow Krzysztof Karbownik, and University of Florida pediatrics scholar Jeffrey Roth, a baby’s weight at birth is a critical factor in determining success later in life, with benefits to higher birth weight for babies all the way to 10 pounds.

The researchers traced the dramatic effects of birth weight on cognitive development by matching birth, school, and other administrative records for 1.3 million children, or every child born in Florida over an 11-year span. The study suggests that babies who weigh more at birth have higher test scores from third through eighth grade. The relationship is apparent even among twins: heavier-born twins have higher average test scores in third through eighth grade than their lighter-born twin. According to their study, even the advantage of attending a higher quality school was not enough to compensate for the disadvantage of a lower birth weight. The birth-weight advantage held up across the board for all children—regardless of race, socioeconomic status, enrichment experiences provided by parents, maternal education, and a host of other factors. The results speak to how health disparities starting at birth—especially for children in poverty, who are twice as likely to be born underweight—can have a lasting, negative impact on school achievement.  

Gender Differences and Environments
"Differences in early life investments and adaptation behaviors between genders can affect the efficacy of childhood policy interventions." (p. 171)

Again analyzing the Florida dataset, Figlio, Karbownik, and Roth, with MIT’s David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, reveal how childhood environments can intensify the effects of disadvantage and how effects can vary by gender. At birth, boys and girls appear equal by observed prenatal or neonatal measures, such as birth weight and maternal health. But compared with their sisters, boys born to unmarried mothers, most of whom dropped out of high school, are more likely to grow up in low-income neighborhoods, attend blighted public schools, be truant, and get called to the school office for behavioral problems. They also present a greater chance of having a behavioral and/or cognitive disability, lower test scores, and lower high school graduation rates. This suggests that policymakers should consider the effects of early environments and family disadvantage when designing policies aimed at improving the outcomes of boys in school.

Early Access to Healthcare
"The literature on desegregation of healthcare facilities also demonstrates that access to healthcare during childhood can have large impacts on children’s long-term outcomes." (p. 183) 

In another study, Guryan and his colleagues, Brown University’s Kenneth Chay and Bhashkar Mazumder of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, demonstrate a link between hospital desegregation and improved adult IQs and better life outcomes. Using test score data from 1976–91, the researchers observed how the achievement gap between whites and African Americans shrank, primarily due to improvements in African American test scores. Tracking the areas and birth cohorts that saw the greatest gains in African American test scores, largely those born in the late 1960’s in the South, they uncover the unexpected source of the narrowing achievement gap—the 1965 integration of Southern hospitals. Hospital integration, they find, had a number of positive effects: the deaths of African American infants declined dramatically, falling more than 40 percent between 1964 and 1972, and for those same cohorts, African American test scores improved between the early 1960s and early 1970s, African Americans were more likely to go to college, and they had higher earnings as adults. Their findings suggest that efforts to reduce racial inequalities should involve looking beyond school settings to early, and equal, healthcare access.

Early-Life Nutrition
"The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is the cornerstone of the U.S. policy to address food insecurity—it is the largest and most universal of a set of Federal food and nutrition programs designed to alleviate hunger by supplementing the food budgets of low-income households." (p. 185–86)

IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach has a growing body of research examining the impacts of SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program. The report cites her work with colleagues Hilary Hoynes of the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University’s Douglas Almond that examined the progressive roll-out of food stamps, which expanded county by county from 1961–75. They show that being born, or living in, a county that offered food stamps positively impacted later life outcomes, making the biggest long-term difference when it was available from the in utero period and for children up to age five. Children in this age group who had access to food stamps were less likely to be obese or develop diabetes or high blood pressure—also known as metabolic syndrome diseases—later in life. The results stress the importance of intervening during early life because, as Schanzenbach and her colleagues discover, SNAP had minimal effects on adult health when a child is first exposed after age 5. Nonetheless, there were positive impacts on economic outcomes such as high school graduation rates and adult earnings for those with access in early life as well as those who first gained access in later life.

Universal Preschool
"One likely source of the improving academic outcomes for children who are not enrolled in Head Start or other more narrowly targeted programs is the recent expansion of large, State-run public preschool programs." (p. 197)

Schanzenbach and Dartmouth economist Elizabeth Cascio compared children and families in Georgia and Oklahoma, two states with universal preschool programs, with those in other states to see universal preschool impacted access to preschool and subsequent achievement. When their state adopts a universal preschool program, children from lower-income families are substantially more likely to enroll in preschool, and their subsequent test scores are improved through eighth grade. Among children from higher-income families, though, the program has a smaller impact on whether or not the child is enrolled in preschool at all, but instead shifts enrollment from private to public preschools and does not have a measurable impact on later test scores.

In another study of state pre-kindergarten programs led by former IPR graduate research assistant Vivian Wong (SESP ’10), now at University of Virginia, with IPR social psychologist Thomas D. Cook and their colleagues, the researchers examine preschool programs in five states: Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and West Virginia. They generally find positive effects, or those that trend positive, for raising preschoolers’ vocabulary, math, and print awareness. Despite the nonrandom selection of states and their higher-than-average program standards, the results lead the researchers to conclude that state pre-K programs can have positive effects on children’s cognitive skills, though effects can vary by state and the learning subject.

Income-Support Programs
"Compared with similar children who received no support, children from families who received temporary income support at the start of the 20th century saw higher wages, more education, and lower mortality—with benefits from a few years of income support lasting for 80 years or more." (p. 49–50)

Research by economist and IPR associate Joseph Ferrie and his colleagues estimates the decades-long impact of the Mothers’ Pension program, the first U.S. welfare program, which provided income support to low-income families from 1911–35, and would form the basis for later income-support programs. Combining administrative records on pension applicants with their census records, World War II army enlistment records, and death records, the researchers determine that the sons of mothers in the Mothers’ Pension lived a year longer than those of mothers who were not accepted into the program. The pensioners’ sons also received more schooling, were less likely to be underweight, and earned more as adults. This research exemplifies how present-day programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, which involve cash transfers to low-income families with young children, constitute an effective path to improve children’s long-term outcomes.

In addition to work by Wong, the report also highlights research by former IPR graduate students, from University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Katherine Magnuson’s (SESP ’02) research on the effects of early childhood education and early-life income support to research by Aaron Sojourner (WCAS ’09), now at the University of Minnesota, on the Infant Health and Development Program and IQ gaps.

“Graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and undergraduates are all at the core of IPR’s community,” said Figlio. “It’s wonderful to see our students go on to establish their own innovative and influential research agendas.”

The White House economists close the section by calling the early childhood policies and their long-term benefits an “investment” and a “win-win opportunity for participating children, their parents, and society as a whole.” 

“This means society reaps the benefits of a better-educated, higher-earning, and healthier population in the future—including lower transfer payments, reduced involvement with the criminal justice system, lower health care costs, and a larger tax revenue base,” they conclude.


Published: March 30, 2016.