Would You Rather Pay Less Now, or Pay More Later?


There’s an interesting issue brief online from the Partnership for America’s Success, a coalition managed by the Pew Center on the States. The brief, citing an analysis by several economists and criminologists, makes the case that we should invest in healthy child development now as a way to avoid the significantly higher costs of societal problems later.

The researchers identify several negative outcomes of failure to invest early, and note the potential price tags:

  • Child Abuse: Societal costs for medical and mental health care and services such as foster care total more than $30,000 for a child who is abused.
  • Teen Parenthood: When a teenager has a child, the nation pays $120,000 for expenses including medical care, social assistance programs and efforts to deal with higher rates of abuse and neglect among these young parents.
  • High School Dropout: A dropout costs society $250,000 through lower earnings and benefits.
  • Illegal Drug Abuse: Treatment, medical care and other societal costs caused by a drug abuser amount to $250,000.
  • Alcohol abuse: Societal costs for an alcoholic, such as medical problems, car crashes and lost productivity at work, add up to $230,000.

The brief goes on to compare some of the costs of early investment against the price tag of later problems. For example, the cost of “quality pre-kindergarten programs” which reduce the frequency of high-school dropouts, is around $10,000. On the other hand “a high school dropout’s lower earnings create costs for public assistance programs and efforts to offset the dropout’s reduced contribution to society.” These costs can total $250,000.

The issue brief focuses on the long-term savings of prevention; in this case, prevention of the effects of poor childhood development. Public health programs have the same goal — to prevent diseases and other health problems as a way to save money on treatment. As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

So what would you prefer? To invest now and gain a higher return in the form of significant savings, or to wait until a problem comes up, and find yourself shouldering higher costs?

Posted on February 23, 2011, in Education, Health. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This song has been sung for generations, yet the promised benefits never materialize.

    More money is not the answer. Standards, accountability, societal judgement of right and wrong, assimilation and public oversight of those that waste the money already being spent will yield far greater results, though we might ruffle a few feathers and inconvenience a few of the entitled (recipients and service providers alike).

    There is more than enough money allocated for those that will still need help after the above steps are consistently implemented. But what will become of those that enrich themselves at the trough of social service spending? Oh, the horrors…

  2. David E. Slotnick

    I agree — more money is not the answer. The economic goal of prevention is to save money by making smaller investments now to avoid higher costs later on. The analysis cited by the brief suggests that such investments would lead at-risk children to become successful, productive members of society, which, as you suggest, is what is needed.

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