Perry Preschool Project Outcomes in the Next Generation

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Children of the low-income African Americans who participated in the 1960s program are more likely to have a high school degree and to be employed, and less likely to have been arrested.

For several years in the 1960s, 58 low-income, African-American three- and four-year-old children attended a high-quality, free preschool program in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The children were randomly assigned to treatment. The program included weekly home visits — most for two years. Researchers have been tracking the participants ever since in a long-running experiment known as the Perry Preschool Project. While the boost in IQ from the intervention initially appeared to fade out after several years, researchers have since documented significant long-term benefits. In comparison to a control group of peers, Perry participants enjoy better academic, labor market, behavioral, and health outcomes in adulthood. They also exhibit better executive functioning and socioemotional skills, which are the main factors producing program success.

In Intergenerational and Intra­generational Externalities of the Perry Preschool Project (NBER Working Paper No. 25889), James J. Heckman and Ganesh Karapakula use survey data to examine how the children of the original Perry Preschool Project participants have fared in adulthood. They find substantial positive effects. In comparison to the children of those in the control group, Perry participants' children are more than 30 percentage points less likely to have been suspended from school, about 20 percentage points more likely never to have been arrested or suspended, and over 30 percentage points more likely to have a high school diploma and to be employed. While the researchers do not have earnings data on the Perry participants' children, they note that the children "likely earn more than those in the control group, perhaps due to enhanced cognitive and noncognitive skills."

Among male children of participants, the researchers find the program had positive effects on health, college graduation rates, and employment rates. Female children of Perry participants, meanwhile, were more likely to have graduated from high school without ever having been suspended.

"About 8 percent of the second-generation male children of the male participants in the treatment group are employed college graduates compared to none in the control group," the researchers report. "About 26 percent of those in the treated families are employed with some college experience, while no such children exist in the untreated families."

The researchers explore, but are not able to conclusively determine, why the children of Perry participants fare so well. They find no meaningful differences in the types of neighborhoods in which the children of Perry and control group participants grew up. They find that Perry Preschool participants, particularly male participants, are more likely to raise their children in stable, two-parent homes. Male participants' children also grow up in households with higher parental earnings.

"The children of the treated participants excel in various life domains despite growing up in neighborhoods that are similar to or slightly worse off than the neighborhoods of the control group... The evidence ... suggests that the home environment matters more than the neighborhood in explaining the intergenerational program effects on the adult outcomes of the children of the Perry participants."

The researchers also study the siblings of the original Perry Preschool participants. They find that siblings, especially male siblings, who were already present but ineligible for the program when families began the intervention were more likely to graduate from high school and be employed than the siblings of those in the control group. They conclude that high-quality preschool programs can contribute to lifting multiple generations out of poverty.

— Dwyer Gunn