Perry Preschool

State of Opportunity special: Your tax dollars at work

Jul 30, 2015
Chris Potter / Flickr

Michigan spends about $5.6 billion on social welfare programs a year, and that doesn't include health care. 

Even though that's only about 10% of the state's total budget, our passions and our politics are very much at work when we talk about these programs.  

In this hour-long special, we uncover why we get so emotional about social welfare spending. Do these emotions keep us from having policies and programs that would actually help families in Michigan get ahead? 

user DarkGuru / creative commons

Pay now or pay later? I feel like that could be the unofficial tag line for our State of Opportunity project.  

The "pay now or pay later" question comes up time and again when we talk about programs aimed at helping kids climb out of poverty. For example: Do we spend the money up front for high-quality preschool for low-income kids, or do we wait until they're falling behind to try and step in to help? Do we offer preventive medical care for low-income kids, or do we wait to treat them until they've developed asthma or heart disease later in life?  

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

  Extra! Extra! High-quality preschool makes a difference. Actually, that's hardly breaking news. Study after study after study that has shown the benefits of high-quality preK, particularly for disadvantaged students. 

Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio

Let's play the "what if" game for a second:

What if there was a program for kids in poverty that guaranteed at least a $7 return on investment for every $1 spent? What if that same program also improved graduation rates and significantly reduced crime rates?

Sound to go to be true? It’s not.

Those are just some of the long-term benefits associated with a study from the 1960s called the HighScope Perry Preschool Program.

About 120 African American children from Ypsilanti were enrolled in the project, all of whom lived in poverty. Half the children were enrolled in half-day preschool at Perry, the other half were not.

The two groups have been studied for more than 40 years and the children who attended Perry Preschool have pretty much outperformed the control group in every measurable category – from test scores and high school graduation rates all the way through to adulthood.

So what, exactly, does it take to produce those kinds of results?


  James Heckman is one of the world’s most distinguished economists. He built his career studying the labor market. In 2000, he won the Nobel Prize.

But in recent years, Heckman has become famous for something else. He is now one of the country’s leading advocates for investments in early childhood education. Earlier this month, I had a chance to sit down with him to find out how an economist came to care about preschool.