New research suggests far-reaching benefits from early-childhood programs, including better long-term health and higher lifetime earnings — and that the earlier the help begins the better.

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The children who participated in two of the nation’s oldest preschool programs during the 1970s are now well into their 40s and 50s.

And new research, which looked at their quality of life at age 35, shows that the high-quality child care they received in their early years and support for their parents yielded great economic, health and social benefits.

The study, released Monday, shows that the services offered by the two North Carolina programs led to an increase in lifetime earnings for the children and their parents. All the children, who were African American and lived in low-income families, received an array of services from birth to age 5, aimed at improving their education, nutrition and health.

The study’s authors also linked such programs to a reduction in criminal behavior and improved health outcomes, and noted those benefits were particularly pronounced for males.

The new research comes at a time when policymakers are debating when to offer help to families who may not have the means or know-how to encourage their child’s development, and how much public money to devote to it.

“The data speaks for itself,” said James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development at the University of Chicago. “Investing in the continuum of learning from birth to age 5 not only impacts each child, but it also strengthens our country’s workforce today and prepares future generations to be competitive in the global economy tomorrow.”

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Heckman compared investing in early childhood development to Hoover Dam and other public projects that generate a public good for decades.

His team, which included researchers from the University of Chicago and University of Southern California, studied the long-term impact of two preschool experiments conducted in North Carolina during the ’70s.

With an adjusted yearly cost of $18,514 per child, the programs offered 50 weeks a year, for five years, of intensive support for newborns and their parents, who were randomly selected to participate. The program provided high-quality child care that allowed parents to continue working or further their own education, health screenings that caught problems early, and training for parents on how to support their child’s development at home.

The researchers found that overall the program generated an annual return of 13 percent on the investment in each child. In previous research, Heckman established a 7-10 percent annual return for preschool programs serving just 3- and 4-year-olds.

Males in the new study earned much more over their lifetimes — almost $300,000, said co-author Jorge Luis García — and were healthier, too.

“This is very strong evidence for supporting this kind of program going forward,” Heckman said, estimating that about 20 percent of African-American children would be eligible for such a program today.

He also cautioned politicians to avoid thinking that subsidized or universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds is all they need to support.

Instead, Heckman urged policymakers to find ways to connect a patchwork of programs that address elements similar to what was offered in the North Carolina experiments, including home-visitation services, private child care and more.

“The sooner, the better. The earlier, the better. It’s too bad that public discussion (on preschool) has kind of ossified,” Heckman said.

“We can do better, (and) my hunch is they’re going to be less effective than if we start earlier.”