How to Break the Poverty Cycle

In 1962, 58 African-American 3- and 4-year-olds, all from poor families and likely candidates for failure in school, enrolled in Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich. This was a novel venture, and parents clamored to sign their children up. Louise Derman-Sparks, who taught there, told me she “fell in love with the kids. They were so excited, so intelligent, so curious.” Because the demand could not be satisfied, 65 applicants were turned away. They became the control group in an experiment that confirmed the importance of a child’s first years.

Researchers who tracked these children say this experience shaped their lives. Those in preschool were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. As adults, more have held down jobs, and owned a home and a car. Fewer smoke, drink, use drugs, receive welfare or have gone to prison.

The significance of these findings is striking. Early education used to be equated with babysitting, and a child-care center was considered just a cozy nest where working parents could safely drop off their children. Perry became exhibit No. 1 in the argument for high-quality preschool.

Attending a good preschool is not the only early-in-life experience that reverberates for decades. Studies show that whether their mother had prenatal care and whether they had well-baby checkups and had enough to eat can change children’s lives — whether they stayed healthy, went to high school, graduated from college, earned a decent wage or ran afoul of the law.

To be sure, the fact that middle-class youngsters have had it much better in these respects has made it hard for poor youths to climb the social-class ladder. But safety-net programs like Head Start, Food Stamps, and Medicaid, devised in the 1960s and 1970s, were intended to shrink this gap, even as conservatives reflexively dismissed those efforts as wastes of money.

Those programs do work. During the 1980s and 1990s, Medicaid eligibility expanded to ensure that millions of more mothers had prenatal care, regular visits to a pediatrician and well-baby checkups. That care kept millions of children in school and out of trouble, allowing for a longer, healthier and more economically stable life. Food Stamps have yielded or generated long-term benefits.

By now, many of the children whose parents signed up decades ago have had children of their own. And scholars have begun asking whether advantages conferred on one generation are passed on to the next.

The answer is a resounding yes. Public investments can break the cycle of poverty.

The Perry preschoolers’ offspring are more likely to have graduated from high school, gone to college and found jobs, and less likely to have a criminal record than their peers whose parents lacked the same opportunity. As for Head Start, more of the second generation graduate from high school and enroll in college, and fewer become pregnant as teenagers or go to prison. What’s more, girls whose mothers saw a doctor when they were pregnant are less likely to have low-birthweight or premature babies.

These positive findings make intuitive sense. When children who have absorbed the ethos of preschool — wait your turn, share — become adults, they are primed to be good parents, inclined to enroll their own offspring in an early-education program. When poor and working-class families don’t have to pay for prenatal care or well-baby checkups, they have less stress and more money to spend at home.

“Poverty perpetuates itself. Five- and 6-year-old children are inheritors of poverty’s curse and not its creators,” President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965 as Head Start began. “Unless we act, these children will pass it on to the next generation, like a family birthmark.”

But there is something missing from this prescription for a more equal society across generations — the failure to dismantle school segregation. Although desegregation is seldom mentioned in the same breath as Head Start or Medicaid, it belongs high among strategies that can help to derail the cycle of poverty.

Conservatives often dismiss integration as social engineering run amok. By contrast, in a new book, “Children of the Dream,” Rucker Johnson, a Berkeley professor of public policy, spells out the price we pay for having abandoned the policy. In the 1970s, integration gave a leg up to black children in newly desegregated schools. The longer they attended those schools, the more they benefited.

Those gains too have carried into the second generation; children whose parents attended an integrated school for at least five years are 10 percent more likely to graduate from high school. “They become more civic-minded, more socially conscious and more career-oriented,” Professor Johnson told me. Social psychologists say interracial experience undercuts bigotry.

But that opportunity was missed. The pitched battles in New York City over redrawing school boundaries and diversifying its selective high schools deliver a stunning reminder that integration can be a political third rail. Elsewhere, however, the picture now isn’t so bleak. During the past decade, more than 100 school districts adopted plans that foster socio-economic integration. And despite opposition at the outset, Louisville, Ky. has drawn attendance zones that promote racial as well as socio-economic integration; polls now show overwhelming support.

Perhaps the nation would be less racially polarized today, immune to the race-baiting from the White House if public schools adopted Louisville’s approach.

Let’s think big — how about coupling prenatal care and good early education with integrated, well-financed schools? That would pack a wallop.