The Effect of Early Childhood Education on Adult Criminality: Evidence from the 1960s through 1990s

Early Childhood Education and Adulthood Criminality

Abstract:  We investigate the impact of early childhood education on adult criminal behavior, leveraging policy variation spanning decades. We use variation across birth cohorts generated by the rollout of Head Start (for those born in the 1960s and 1970s) and Smart Start (for those born in the 1980s and 90s) along with administrative crime data containing the birth county of all individuals convicted of a crime in North Carolina. Across programs and time periods we find that improvements to early childhood education led to large (20 percent) reductions in the likelihood of a serious criminal conviction in adulthood, with these reductions concentrated in high poverty counties. While the benefits generated by each program in the form of crime reduction account for a large portion of the costs of the education provided, we find substantial relative gains from the targeting of funds to high poverty areas and to areas without existing access to subsidized care.