Early investments pay off for poor children, study finds
Ton Koene/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis
Poverty keeps more than 200 million children from reaching their potential, but early interventions can change that, psychologists say.
Many of the world’s poorest countries lack basic services for
young children, and finding the resources to send children
to preschool is a struggle. But the benefits greatly outweigh
the costs, according to a new study on early childhood
developmental interventions. Low- and middle-income
countries that managed to enroll 25 percent to 50 percent of
their children in preschool would recoup $6.40 to $17.60 for
every dollar invested, the researchers estimate.
The study is part of a two-paper series, published in
October in the journal The Lancet. It looked at how inequalities
that begin in the womb and continue through early childhood
— such as malnutrition, disease, maternal depression and lack
of access to early child development programs — can continue
to affect children throughout their lives, and even into the next
Poverty-related problems keep more than 200 million
children around the world from meeting their developmental
potential, the same researchers found in a 2007 Lancet series.
In the new series, they examine the root causes of those
disparities, and how early interventions can help.
“What happens over time is that there are basically two
tracks. A lower track that is less optimal and a higher track
that is more optimal,” says Maureen Black, PhD, a psychologist
at University of Maryland School of Medicine and one of the
study’s authors. “And over time, the gap [between the two]
widens.” The child on the lower track is less likely to go to school,
to benefit from school and eventually to earn good wages.
But, Black says, the research shows that early interventions
can reduce the gap between the two tracks. The researchers
reviewed the literature on 42 such programs from around the
globe, such as preschool, parental education programs and
nutrition education programs. The study’s authors are an
interdisciplinary consortium of pediatricians, psychologists,
economists and others called the Global Child Development
The great challenge in reaching the 200 million children at
risk, the researchers say, will be in figuring out how to expand
interventions that have worked on a small scale, finding
the funding to do so and coordinating among the many
government agencies — education, social services and others
— that could deliver them.
“The publication in the Lancet is not an endpiece, it’s a
mechanism,” says Black. “It gives us more credibility to push for
the endpiece, which is evidence-based, high-quality programs
for kids that are taken up by governments.”
Watch a video of the researchers presenting
their study at a World Bank event at http://