Evidence-Based Message Strategies to Increase Public Support for State Investment in Early Childhood Education: Results from a Longitudinal Panel Experiment

Jeff Niederdeppe, Liana B. Winett, Yiwei Xu, Erika Franklin Fowler, Sarah E. Gollust

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Policy Points Investments in early childhood education can have long-lasting influence on health and well-being at later stages of the life course. Widespread public support and strategies to counter opposition will be critical to the future political feasibility of enhancing early childhood policies and programs. Simple advocacy messages emphasizing the need for affordable, accessible, high-quality childcare for all can increase public support for state investments in these policies. Policy narratives (short stories with a setting, characters, and a plot that unfolds over time and offers a policy solution to a social problem) that describe structural barriers to childcare and policy solutions to address these barriers may be particularly effective to persuade individuals inclined to oppose such policies to become supportive. Inoculation messages (messages designed to prepare audiences for encountering and building resistance to opposing messages) may protect favorable childcare policy attitudes in the face of oppositional messaging. Context: Early childhood education (ECE) programs enhance the health and social well-being of children and families. This preregistered, randomized, controlled study tested the effectiveness of communication strategies to increase public support for state investments in affordable, accessible, and high-quality childcare for all. Methods: At time 1 (August-September 2019), we randomly assigned members of an online research panel (n = 4,363) to read one of four messages promoting state investment in childcare policies and programs, or to a no-exposure control group. Messages included an argument-based message (“simple pro-policy”), a message preparing audiences for encountering and building resistance to opposing messages (“inoculation”), a story illustrating the structural nature of the problem and solution (“narrative”), and both inoculation and narrative messages (“combined”). At time 2 (two weeks later) a subset of respondents (n = 1,436) read an oppositional anti-policy message and, in two conditions, another narrative or inoculation message. Ordinary least squares regression compared groups’ levels of support for state investment in childcare policies and programs. Findings: As hypothesized, respondents who read the narrative message had higher support for state investment in childcare policies than those who read the inoculation message or those in the no-exposure control group at time 1. Among respondents who were initially opposed to such investments, those who read the narrative had greater support than respondents who read the simple pro-policy message. Those who received the inoculation message at time 2 were more resistant to the anti-policy message than respondents who did not receive such a message, but effects from exposures to strategic messages at time 1 did not persist at follow-up. Conclusions: Results offer guidance for policy advocates seeking to increase public support for early childhood policies and programs and could inform broader efforts to promote high-value policies with potential to improve population health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1088-1131
Number of pages44
JournalMilbank Quarterly
Issue number4
Early online dateAug 17 2021
StatePublished - Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
In recognition of the health and social benefits of ECE, a robust literature has explored structural, political, and economic factors that shape public support for ECE policies and programs. Most of this work, however, has involved cross‐national comparisons between European countries, most of which have stronger social safety nets (and public expectations that governments provide such supports) than in the United States. Despite strong evidence and calls for greater investment in childcare and early education, the United States ranks near the bottom of developed nations in terms of per capita investment in ECE. Although some US federal ECE policies (including the Child Care and Development Block Grant, Head Start, and Early Head Start programs) have gathered bipartisan support in recent years, most ECE policies and programs are implemented at the state and local level. The Child Care and Development Block Grant is distributed federally but implemented by states, and additional state‐level ECE investments are funded by various budgetary mechanisms (general fund appropriations, block grants, specific state funding formulas). As a result, states vary widely in the extent to which they support pre‐kindergarten programs, offer incentives to ECE providers, and/or fund training grants to promote high‐quality ECE. 23‐30 23‐27 31 32 33 33,34

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Authors. The Milbank Quarterly published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of The Millbank Memorial Fund


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