When it comes to anti-poverty policies, universal programs have a number of political advantages over means-tested ones. In other words, when programs benefit everyone, rather than only those who make less than a certain amount of income, they are more likely to garner public support.
Take, for example, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Universal Prekindergarten (UPK) program in New York City. Policy-wise, it’s an ambitious plan— his aim is to enroll over 70,000 four-year-olds in high-quality preschool free of charge by fall 2015. But as a new report, Lessons from New York City’s Universal Pre-K Expansion: How a Focus on Diversity Could Make It Even Better, by my colleague Halley Potter notes, “while the hefty price tag of universal pre-K can be a political liability ($340 million annually in the case of de Blasio’s plan), universal access can also be a political asset.” According to a Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans support the use of federal funds for universal pre-K programs.
Making preschool universal establishes it as a public good, much the same as how we now perceive benefits such as K-12 education and Social Security. If de Blasio’s program, which enrolled 52,547 children in pre-K for the 2014-2015 school year (which put the program on track to meet its goal of 73,250 children by 2016), continues to expand and succeed, UPK may become an entrenched right in the minds of New Yorkers.
While UPK isn’t considered an anti-poverty policy in the traditional sense of directly relieving material hardship, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), it is an investment that will reduce economic inequality in the long run. UPK helps ensure that the city’s four-year-olds will be more likely to begin their K-12 education on equal footing.
Additionally, as Potter notes, investment in early childhood education has proven to have a high rate of return—$8 for every $1 spent—due to reduced social expenditures in the long-term. With almost one-third of the city’s children living below the federal poverty line, de Blasio’s plan is an investment that the youngest New Yorkers desperately need.
But Universality Isn’t Everything
The pre-K conversation doesn’t just end once every child becomes enrolled.
While the report praises de Blasio’s efforts, it also points out that not enough attention is being paid to promoting diversity in early education classrooms. As UPK continues to roll out, New York is caught in a unique position of ensuring that its preschools are especially socioeconomically and racially integrated, compared to the rest of its public school system. Although New York City has one of the most diverse populations in the country, only 20 percent of its school districts were considered diverse in 2010.
There is a large amount of evidence proving the benefits of integrated classrooms for low-income and minority students. Potter cites one study that looked at eleven state pre-K programs and found that when the average socioeconomic status of the classroom was higher, children performed better in school, regardless of their own socioeconomic status. To read more on the advantages of integrated preschools, check out A Better Start: Why Classroom Diversity Matters in Early Education.
Publicly funded preschool programs, such as Head Start or state-run programs, usually exclusively serve low-income youth, thus making it difficult to have socioeconomically and racially integrated classrooms. However, UPK serves the whole population and families are not limited by factors such as location or tuition cost when choosing which preschools they want to apply to.
With proper support, such as collecting better demographic data within classrooms, subsidizing transportation, and expanding seats in accessible neighborhoods, de Blasio’s UPK program could increase the number of racially and socioeconomically diverse schools in the city, says Potter.
Early childhood investment makes sense and has proven results, and there are now thousands more four-year-olds in New York who can attest to that. However, as UPK expands in the city, policymakers must keep in mind that our children deserve equity as much as they deserve access.