When the Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney suggested that parents in struggling rural and urban areas might not consider funding public television through the Corporation for Public Broadcast a good use of taxpayer dollars during an appearance on Morning Joe on Thursday, he may have thought his statements reflected their feelings and were backed by up evidence. He was wrong on both accounts.
Mulvaney was likely parroting the long-held conservative belief that PBS – with cultural programming like Masterpiece Theater and Antiques Roadshow – is too highbrow, and geared solely towards “coastal elites.” Yet he may have seemed woefully out of touch with the needs and desires of economically struggling families to Vicenta Medina, an immigrant mother from Mexico. While she and her husband Gilbert struggled to raise their family on the South Side of Chicago forty years ago, she says Sesame Street helped teach English to their young son David. They watched him go on to collect degrees from both Harvard and the University of Chicago, and then work in the Obama White House—where I first heard his story from a mutual friend.
The Medina’s story of a hard-pressed family benefiting from public television is hardly anecdotal. Strong research shows that PBS programs such as Sesame Street have proven academic benefits for young audiences — especially those from more underprivileged households. According to a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study by University of Maryland’s Melissa Kearney and Wellesley College’s Phillip Levine, exposure to Sesame Street is an extremely low-cost intervention that has increased grade readiness for children living in economically disadvantaged areas. The effect is especially pronounced for boys and minority children, who have seen their likelihood of being below grade level decrease by as much as 16 percent.