Head Start, Other Preschool Programs, & Life Success in a Youth Cohort

By Caputo, Richard K. | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Head Start, Other Preschool Programs, & Life Success in a Youth Cohort


Caputo, Richard K., Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


This study assesses the effects of Head Start and other preschool programs on five life success measures in a U.S. cohort of youth (N = 5,621). The life success indices are average annual income-to-poverty ratios, economic mobility, and number of years the youth lived in families whose incomes fell below official poverty thresholds, received Food Stamps, and received TANF/AFDC. Controlling for a variety of background and other factors in separate regression models for each life success measure, results show that youth who participated in preschool programs other than Head Start had higher average annual income-to-poverty ratios than non-preschoolers. Bivariate findings corroborate previous research indicating that Head Starters are economically and behaviorally disadvantaged compared to both other preschool and non-preschool children. Multivariate findings of this study also show that Head Starters do as well as non-preschoolers in regard to the four other life success measures. In essence, on these measures Head Starters become mainstreamed by the time they enter the labor force, start their own families, and form their own households, such that they fare no better or worse than other preschoolers and non-preschoolers in regard to economic mobility, years lived in poor families, and receipt of Food Stamps and TANF/AFDC. Findings support continued funding of Head Start but also suggest that higher levels of funding may be necessary to raise family incomes above poverty comparable to other preschool programs.

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This study examines long-term effects of preschool intervention programs on a U.S. cohort of youth. Controlling for a variety of background, early childhood, sociodemographic, human capital, structural, and other factors, the author seeks to determine how those who participated in Head Start and other preschool programs fared in regard to economic well-being compared to those who had no preschool experience. The study uses data from the 1979 Cohort of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79).

Over the past several decades, scholars and others have devoted much attention to Head Start and other preschool interventions like the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project. The related literature is extensive and sufficiently covered elsewhere (e.g., Children's Defense Fund, 1992; Grimmet & Garrett, 1989; McKey, et al., 1985; Washington & Oyemade, 1987; Zigler & Muenchow, 1992; Zigler & Valentine, 1979). Caputo (1998) notes that the literature is mixed in regard to Head Start's enabling poor families to break the cycle of disadvantage and his study of the children of NLSY79 mothers shows that Head Start children spend more time in persistent poverty than other children from poor families and benefit from behavioral and emotional adjustments. In an earlier NLSY79 study, Mott and Quinlan (1991) report short-term cognitive gains, but possible negative effects on emotional development. Currie and Thomas (1995), also relying on the NLSY79, report that the short-term cognitive gains among both whites and blacks were quickly lost among blacks.

In a more recent meta-analysis of 35 studies published between 1990 and 2000 that assessed short- and long-term benefits of preschool programs, Gorey (2001) finds large positive effects on standardized measures of academic achievement and intelligence, lasting even after 5 to 10 years, and substantial lessening of personal and social problems measured by cumulative indices over a 10- to 25-year period for those who had attended preschool (e.g., school drop out, welfare dependence, unemployment, and poverty. Also see Reynolds, Temple, Robertson, & Mann, 2001). Gorey notes however that preschool programs like Head Start are generally placed at the low end of a continuum in terms of the amount of preschool intervention and his findings suggest that both short- and long-term benefits are associated primarily with the more intensive programs like the Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian Project. …

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