Do you remember your preschool? I do: six months at my local church program, followed by a couple of years of Montessori school put me ahead of many of the kids I started first grade with. And it was fun — I made friends (two of whom I still know!), learned beginner French and Spanish, created colorful art with my first favorite teacher (Miss Katz), sat in a circle and talked about my animal friends at home, worked through pages in my workbook, acted as the money-keeper in a play where I designed a crown made from copies of dollar bills, and even dealt with a bully.

I entered preschool after a tumultuous early life that saw me living in three different countries, abandoned by my mother, and finally living in New York with my grandmother. There's no doubt that my preschool experience gave me a social, practical and structural foundation that helped me succeed in grade school and beyond.

But many kids still don't have access to early childhood programs like I did in the early 1980s. And there's a long-standing debate about whether public early childhood education programs are really all that beneficial. Do public programs justify the taxpayer money spent on them?

Proven benefits

Preschool clsasroom Early education programs substantially improve health, quality of life, earning potential and education potential, a new study shows. (Photo: Fh Photo/Shutterstock)

A new study by a group of economists from the Universities of Chicago and Southern California tracked kids born in the 1970s (from about six months of age) to age 35. This kind of longitudinal study — done over a very long period of time — is not common due to fiscal restraints and the logistical difficulties inherent in gathering information on groups of people for decades. But this study included data collected through age 8 on both academic and home-life factors as well as follow-ups for kids who attended a public preschool program for low-income parents.

What did they find? According to the study, early childhood education intervention "has substantial beneficial impacts on (a) health and the quality of life, (b) the labor incomes of participants, (c) crime, (d) education, and (e) the labor income of the mothers of the participants through subsidizing their childcare."

And the returns were significant when it comes to economics, too. Looking at the costs of not receiving early childhood education — poorer health, lower income — society ends up with a high rate of return on their investment. "You get about 13 percent per annum. Much higher than the annual return on equities in the U.S. stock market post-Second World War through the 2008 meltdown," James Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development, told NPR.

Fun for the whole family

School pickup Investing in preschool helps mothers, too, the study showed, allowing them to get more education or higher positions at work. (Photo: Kzenon/Shutterstock)

One of the most important findings is how these early interventions don't just help kids — they help mothers, too, which in turn helps kids even more. "Not only providing child care for working mothers — allowing them to get more education — but primarily to get more work experience, higher earnings gains through participating in the workforce, but also getting high-quality child care environments that turn out to be developmentally rich. It promotes social mobility within — and across — generations," said Heckman.

Yes, these early-childhood education programs are costly — $16,000 to $18,000 per year per kid for 5 years. But according to Heckman's data, that initial investment of $70,000 to $80,000 per child results in $700,000 to $800,000 back.

Prison, for example, is much more expensive at an average cost of $31,000 per year per inmate, according to the Department of Justice, with little return. Healthcare costs can dwarf even prison costs, and better health was a surprising benefit of the early childhood education. "The way public policy is discussed frequently in this country is through silos. People say, 'We want to reduce crime. We want to promote health.' We do what is, I think, a very limited kind of notion: looking at one problem at a time and one solution very closely linked to that problem. I would encourage people who see the price tag to also look at the benefit tag. They're well-documented," says Heckman.

Healthier, happier people who need less public assistance and give back over time is a goal we can all agree on, regardless of politics.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.