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Head Start’s Long-Run Impact: Evidence from the Program’s Introduction

Owen Thompson

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Journal of Human Resources, Volume 53, Number 4, Fall 2018, pp. 1100-1139 (Article)

Published by University of Wisconsin Press

For additional information about this article

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Head Start’s Long-Run Impact Evidence from the Program’s Introduction

Owen Thompson


This paper estimates the effect of Head Start on health, education, and labor market outcomes observed through age 48. I combine outcome data from the NLSY79 with archival records on early Head Start funding levels and for identification exploit differences across counties in the introduction timing and size of local Head Start programs. This allows me to compare the long- term outcomes of children who were too old for Head Start when the program was introduced in their county with the outcomes of children who were sufficiently young to be eligible. I find that individuals from counties that had an average-sized program when they were in Head Start’s target age range experienced a $2,199 increase in annual adult earnings, completed 0.125 additional years of education, were 4.6 percentage points less likely to have a health limitation at age 40, and overall experienced a 0.081 standard deviation improvement in a summary index of these and other outcome measures. Funding levels at ages outside of Head Start’s target range are not significantly correlated with long-term outcomes. Estimated treatment effects are largest among blacks, the children of lower-education parents, and children exposed to better funded Head Start programs—heterogeneity that is consistent with a causal program impact.

I. Introduction

On average children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds experience worse life outcomes than their more affluent peers in the United States, and how best to improve the life chances of poor children has long been a question of intense policy and research interest (see Coleman et al. 1966; Almond and Currie 2011). Because many early markers of success already appear worse for poor children

Owen Thompson is Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Williams College. He thanks Martha Bailey and Andrew Goodman-Bacon for assembling and making available Head Start funding data and John Heywood for helpful comments. The data and computer code used in this article are available on the author’s personal web page (https://sites.google.com/site/othompsonecon/). The author is willing to assist ([email protected]). [Submitted February 2016; accepted May 2017]; doi:10.3368/jhr.53.4.0216-7735R1 JEL Classification: I260, J24, and H430 ISSN 0022-166X E-ISSN 1548-8004 ª 2018 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System

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by the time they enter kindergarten, researchers often view preschool-based interven- tions as the policies with the most potential to promote early human capital development and social mobility (Bronfenbrenner 1979; Currie 2001). This view has been reinforced by the success of small-scale model preschool programs like the Abecedarian and Perry Preschool projects, and by interdisciplinary evidence that early childhood constitutes a sensitive period with disproportionate influence on long-term outcomes (Shonkoff and Phillips 2000; Knudsen et al. 2006). Head Start is by far the largest scale preschool-based intervention in the United States,

with the Department of Health and Human Services reporting that Head Start currently serves nearly 1 million low-income children nationwide at a cost of approximately $8 billion annually (DHHS 2014). Since its inception in 1965 as a central component of the War on Poverty, Head Start’s effectiveness has been a topic of considerable contro- versy. Evenafter a large-scale randomized evaluation anda numberofquasi-experimental studies, which are reviewed in greater detail below, skepticism and controversy regarding Head Start’s causal impact onthe outcomes of participants remain, especially withrespect to longer-term outcomes (see Haskins 2004; Barnett 2011; Klein 2011). The present paper assesses the impact of Head Start on a variety of health, education,

and labor market outcomes observed through age 48. My empirical approach uses archival data on county-level Head Start spending in the early years of the program to compare the adult outcomes of children with different levels of childhood exposure to Head Start. Variation in program exposure is primarily due to the fact that some children in my sample were too old for Head Start when the program was introduced in their county, while other children from the same county were sufficiently young for Head Start when it was introduced. Individual level outcome data are drawn from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey

of Youth (NLSY79), whose respondents were born between 1957 and 1964. Approxi- mately 50 percent of individuals from these cohorts were beyond Head Start’s target age range when the program was launched, while the other 50 percent were sufficiently young to participate at the time of its introduction, providing a rich source of plausibly exogenous variation in program exposure within the NLSY79 sample. Respondents have been closely followed well into middle-age, allowing me to assess Head Start’s impact further into the life course and for a wider range of outcomes than most previ- ous research. The main finding is that exposure to early implementations of Head Start had sta-

tistically and substantively significant effects on a variety of long-term outcomes. My preferred models use a composite measure of adult socioeconomic well-being as the dependent variable and restrict the sample to individuals who were between the ages of two and seven when Head Start was introduced in their county. Estimates from these models indicate that being exposed to an average-sized Head Start program led to a 0.081 standard deviation improvement in adult socioeconomic well-being.1 With re- spect to more specific outcomes, I find that exposure to an average-sized Head Start program increased annual adult earnings by $2,199 (in 2012 dollars), improved final educational attainment by 0.125 years, and reduced the probability of a health limitation at age 40 by 4.6 percentage points, among other impacts.

1. As described in detail below, an average Head Start program is defined here as onewith expenditures of $170 per child ages three to six living in the county (in 2012 dollars).

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To validate my research design I present a set of balancing tests that show that the baseline characteristics of children in my sample with and without positive Head Start exposure are very similar. I also demonstrate that Head Start funding at ages outside of the program’s target range is not significantly associated with improved long-term outcomes and that my main findings are largely robust to the inclusion of controls for exposure to other War on Poverty programs or county-specific time trends, and to a variety of al- ternative sample restrictions and specifications. Analyses of treatment effect heterogeneity indicate that program exposure has the largest effects among blacks, the children of lower- education parents, and children exposed to better funded Head Start programs. Given Head Start eligibility criteria and participation rates, these heterogeneous effects are generally consistent with causal program impacts. Finally, I present analyses that compare the outcomes of siblings with different levels of exposure to Head Start during childhood, and the results similarly suggest substantial long-term program effects, but these sibling- based estimates are imprecise and not statistically significant at conventional levels. Relative to the existing Head Start literature, the present study examines a broader

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