Lifelines for Poor Children (James Heckman Does it Again!)

Lifelines for Poor Children (James Heckman Does it Again!)

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly two weeks since I blogged.  The start of the school year for my own 5 kids has been a bumpier transition than I expected.  Increasing my weekly speech therapy caseload by 10 hours has tightened the belt on my time available for working towards my mission of giving all children the school readiness skills they need from birth to 3.  However, meeting the students at the DC charter school at which I work the 10 hours each week has inspired me to get back to the work that James Heckman speaks of in his article for the New York Times titled “Lifelines for Poor Children” published on September 14, 2013.

The students at Meridian Public Charter School are 62% African-American and 36% Hispanic/Latino. 87% of the students at Meridian are low income, meaning that the student’s family’s taxable income for the preceding year did not exceed 150 percent of the poverty level amount. These low income students are the ones James Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and a Nobel Laureate in Economics, writes about in his article:  

The family into which a child is born plays a powerful role in determining lifetime opportunities. This is hardly news, but it bears repeating: some kids win the lottery at birth, far too many don’t — and most people have a hard time catching up over the rest of their lives. Children raised in disadvantaged environments are not only much less likely to succeed in school or in society, but they are also much less likely to be healthy adults. A variety of studies show that factors determined before the end of high school contribute to roughly half of lifetime earnings inequality. This is where our blind spot lies: success nominally attributed to the beneficial effects of education, especially graduating from college, is in truth largely a result of factors determined long before children even enter school.

Although Heckman reminds us that “critics say that early childhood education is expensive and that it is not effective,” Heckman states, as he has time and time again, that these critics “are right about the cost, but terribly wrong about the large return on the investment.”  He says:

Quality early childhood programs for disadvantaged children more than pay for themselves in better education, health and economic outcomes.

He cites two examples, The Perry Preschool project and the the Carolina Abecedarian Project, which boosted the character skills, self-control and social skills, and parental education in the birth to 5 period, that had lasting effects on parenting practices and children’s attachment to parents.  This lead to higher educational attainment and more skilled employment among those in treatment groups.  According to Heckman, 

Most dramatic were ABC’s effects on lifelong health. Now, over 30 years later, those treated in ABC have lower blood pressure, lower abdominal obesity, less hypertension and less likelihood of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular conditions as adults. This evidence clearly shows the power of quality early childhood programs for producing flourishing people with healthier lives, which increases productivity and lowers health care costs.

He wonders, as we all should be, why we aren’t moving forward and changing ways by making investments in life-changing early childhood development for disadvantaged children.  I wonder it when I meet with my Meridian students. I wonder it when I see students and children not living up to their potential.  Heckman says the answer is two things:  unfounded doubt and fear of doing things differently.  Unfounded doubts feed our fear of taking new and more effective approaches, he says.  He goes on to tell us that, as a result, the “American public policy throws money at programs that don’t produce results as good or better than what is obtained from early childhood education.”  He eloquently states further:

This is not to say that we should abandon all remediation programs; only that our focus on fixing downstream problems should not preclude enlightened upstream solutions.

In summary, Heckman tells readers that “our choice in these difficult economic times is not just whether to spend or cut, but whether to choose knowledge over conventional wisdom.  He asks, “Will we put money in programs that pay off?,” and finishes up beautifully when writing what he has written, in the same vein, so many times before:

Quality early childhood programs for disadvantaged children are not “entitlements” or bottomless wells of social spending. They foster human flourishing and they improve our economic productivity in the process. There is no trade-off between equity and efficiency, as there is for other social programs. Early investment in the lives of disadvantaged children will help reduce inequality, in both the short and the long run.

He is but one voice among many, mine included.  What we need now are the listeners and readers of the information available to us to take a stand and speak out.  Those who already know will continue to work to cast doubts aside and to let others know it’s going to be OK if we do things differently than we have for 30 or 40 years, but we need greater numbers involved.  What we truly need is the bravery and fight-to-the-finish attitude that America was built on:  If something isn’t working for the benefit of the whole and for all, then it’s time for a change, perhaps even a revolution.



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