preschool has a whoppingly huge impact on disadvantaged children

[UPDATE: I think I was not skeptical enough in this post, and relied on too few sources (see comments for some useful caveats).  I hope to do some follow up posts eventually and delve into both Tough’s work and other work on early childhood interventions and educational interventions some more.]

Planet Money recently had a story on the radical effectiveness of preschool at changing the lives of poor and at-risk kids, lasting long past preschool.  A few examples of how kids’ lives improved if they’d attended preschool vs. if they hadn’t:

  • teen pregnancy rates were far lower
  • arrest rates were far lower in kids
  • employment rates and income were substantially higher
  • the story also implied that homelessness rates were lower.
The show transcript isn’t up yet, so I don’t have the exact numbers, but the changes were really impressive — I think that there was as much as a 50% decrease in the rates of bad things happening later in life for kids who attended preschool.
This American Life expanded on this theme in another recent show.  They talked to Paul Tough, author of the book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  Tough explained that preschool teaches children “soft skills” — “qualities like tenacity, resilience, impulse control”, which then allow them to do better in all sorts of aspects of life.  You can also teach people these skills later in life, but starting early means they’re less likely to fall behind in school or get in trouble.

An economic analysis cited by Planet Money indicated that making sure kids go to preschool (or presumably otherwise learn “soft skills” early on) is one of the most effective ways you can improve a child’s life, on many surprising dimensions.  It also seems to be one of the best ways to have broader impacts on society as well, given the large effects on the above issues.  As a billionaire investor said, investing in preschools is a good way to treat some of the causes of issues rather than just the symptoms.

Has anyone read Paul Tough’s book?  I’m interested, but not sure whether or not there’s substantially more to it beyond the coverage I’ve already heard.

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“housing first” approach to homelessness

Politifact (prompted by an appearance of HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan on The Daily Show)  just did a detailed cost analysis of something I’ve been meaning to cover for some time — the “housing first” approach to helping the homeless:

Pioneered in the 1990s in New York City, it puts street dwellers in publicly subsidized rooms of their own and connects them with drug treatment, job placement and psychiatric services with the goal of stabilizing their lives. Unlike many treatment programs, housing-first initiatives don’t require participants to get sober first.

“Housing first is a kind of ‘come as you are’ approach. We encourage folks to accept services, and as a result people change their behaviors,” said Brenda Rosen, executive director of Common Ground, a housing-first homelessness program in New York City.

The approach succeeds and saves money, advocates say, because it targets the chronically homeless — those who have been homeless for a year or more and commonly suffer from addiction or mental illness. That segment of the homeless population uses expensive public services at very high rates — emergency rooms, police and fire, and courts.

According to Politifact, former homelessness policy czar under George W. Bush, Philip Mangano, analyzed homelessness costs and housing first costs across many cities.

“We learned that you could either sustain people in homelessness for $35,000 to $150,000 a year, or you could literally end their homelessness for $13,000 to $25,000 a year,” he said.

Other studies have also shown drastic reductions (up to 80%) in hospital visits, detox visits, and incarceration rates.

What’s more, a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that savings increase over time as a person stays housed longer.  Additionally, despite the lack of rules around substance use, alcohol consumption decreases over time.

Housing first programs have a high tenant retention rate — often around 80% for 6 months.  It was largely the push for such programs that led to an impressive drop or 30% in U.S. homelessness rates from 2005 to 2007.

Despite the strong evidence in favor of “housing first”, most cities and programs do not take this approach.  It remains controversial, both from those who think that people who abuse substances don’t deserve housing, and from those who believe it is an impractical approach:

Elizabeth Epstein, research professor at the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, disputes that approach. She says alcoholism is an addiction that is not irreversible and that putting people together in a drinking environment makes it much harder for them to quit.

“Honestly, the idea doesn’t make any sense to me,” she says. “I think that money would be better spent by providing them treatment and not allowing them to drink in their living quarters.”

Based on the evidence of effectiveness, I think there is little doubt that we should lobby for housing first approaches in areas that don’t currently have them, and make sure they are sufficiently well-funded in areas that do.  Housing first improves the lives of people who have been living on the streets, and it saves tax payers money — a rare win-win situation.

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