Comments on Heckman book, “Giving Kids a Fair Chance”

Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman has a recent (March 2013) short book, Giving Kids a Fair Chance. The book has a short essay (about 40 small pages) by Heckman, followed by comments on Heckman’s essay by 11 commentators with a wide range of expertise and ideology, and then followed by a brief reply by Professor Heckman.

The book is an excellent introduction to Professor Heckman’s approach to thinking about early childhood programs. It also provides some insights into some ideas that might be usefully added to Professor Heckman’s approach.

The essay summarizes Professor Heckman’s three main points about early childhood development. First, although both cognitive and non-cognitive skills are important to a person’s success in life, our approach to educational and social policy has sometimes over-stressed cognitive skills. Second, the development of both cognitive and non-cognitive skills is often impaired in disadvantaged families, which includes many low-income families, although we should recognize that many children in higher income families are also at risk of being disadvantaged in early childhood development.  Third, early childhood programs that address both cognitive and non-cognitive skills often have very high rates of return, particularly for disadvantaged families, and many later interventions have much lower rates of return.

Professor Heckman argues for the effectiveness of early childhood programs on the basis of randomized experiments such as the Perry Preschool program, the Abecedarian program, and the Nurse Family Partnership program. He also acknowledges the point made by commentator David Deming, that the recent experimental results that Head Start test score effects fade is not strong evidence against early childhood programs because so many children in the control group were enrolled in other preschool programs.

I would add the following points to Heckman’s case. First, I believe there is stronger evidence than noted by Professor Heckman for “universal” benefits of early childhood programs.  Preschool appears to have benefits for middle-class as well as low-income children, as shown by studies in both Tulsa and Boston. In addition, as argued by one of the commentators (Robin West), and acknowledged in Professor Heckman’s reply, early childhood programs can benefit a significant number of parents by providing affordable quality child care. This allows parents to build job skills via work and education. These better outcomes for parents also help their children, by boosting family living standards, as pointed out by commentator Mike Rose and acknowledged by Heckman.

Second, I believe there is stronger evidence than noted by Professor Heckman for the effectiveness of some later interventions.  He acknowledges the point of some commentators (e.g., Carol Dweck) that the research evidence suggests that non-cognitive skills are quite malleable in adolescence and into the later 20s. I would add to this that there is considerable evidence (for example from my colleague Kevin Hollenbeck ) that later training and education interventions can be very effective if they target specific job skills that are in high demand. Even if IQ and non-cognitive skills are not malleable at later ages, job training programs can usefully provide affordable skills training that is attuned to labor market needs.

What is true is that early interventions can more easily provide broader and more profound benefits for a wide variety of persons. As Heckman has emphasized, later educational and training investments build on earlier investments, and therefore the rate of return to later investments may be greater for those who have received earlier investments. Where I differ is that the public sector can usefully increase the efficiency of these later investments.

Third, I think it is useful to emphasize that these early childhood investments not only benefits the assisted children and their parents, but also have large spillover benefits for the broader society.  I don’t think that Professor Heckman would disagree with the presence of such spillover benefits, as they are widely acknowledged by economists, but it is useful to point out these social spillovers to an audience that might be suspicious about paying higher taxes to benefit “other people’s children”. These spillovers include not only lower crime and welfare costs, but also positive benefits in higher wages and employment rates because early childhood programs will promote local job growth and wage growth. In my opinion, these positive local labor market benefits are particularly politically appealing. (A skeptic could argue that there are alternative cheaper policies that directly sanction crime and welfare use.)

Fourth, the book only begins to get into the political challenges facing any proposed expansion of early childhood programs. As commentator Robin West points out, any government intervention in early childhood raises all kinds of fears and political resistance.  Overcoming such political resistance requires offering salient benefits for a sufficient number of groups.  Professor Heckman briefly mentions in his essay the possibility of offering universal programs, with some fees for upper-income families, to avoid the programs being stigmatized by being associated only with the poor. Commentators Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse also emphasize the political importance of universality.

Overall, this book provides an excellent introduction to the debate over early childhood programs. But adoption of early childhood programs will depend at least as much on getting the politics right as on finding arguments that appeal to policy wonks like me.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
This entry was posted in Early childhood program design issues, Early childhood programs, Economic development. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Comments on Heckman book, “Giving Kids a Fair Chance”

  1. Brigitte Miller, Manager, Parent Relief says:

    Giving Kids a Fair Chance. This is a statement that impacts me to wondering what happen to being treated fairly in this society as a family with children. Why are we judging families and their children? Are we not all equal? Why are the families being classified high income and low income earners? All families should be treated the same. All children should have the same opportunities and have the education as needed.
    Why is this happening? I am very puzzled!
    In this article, “Preschool appears to have benefits for middle-class as well as low-income children. Preschool benefits all children and it should be provided to all families either low or middle class. Forget the classes. Every family should be treated equally and fairly. Give ALL Kids a Fair Chance.
    Early childhood programs can benefit a significant number of parents by providing affordable quality child care. This is true statement. Child care in these times of economics high cost we need to make child care affordable for all families. Parents are on a budget to afford the basics. Food, rent, gas, and clothing. There is little left over for child care but it is need so families can be part of society. Let’s treat all families and kids equally and fairly!
    Brigitte Miller
    Manager, Parent Relief
    Bringing Parents and Providers Together
    Providing Tools for Providers
    Giving Excellent Service
    Online Community

  2. timbartik says:

    Thank you for your comment, Brigitte.

    I’m sure Professor Heckman, me, and you all agree that all families should be treated equitably. The challenge is, what does equitable treatment mean?

    If all families are charged the same fees for high-quality preschool or child care, that is treating all families the same from one perspective. But in practice this will mean that some families will not be able to afford high-quality preschool or child care, which is a type of inequity.

    Professor Heckman argues for income-based fees for high-quality early childhood programs. In practice, the details of what those fees are matter a great deal to the impact of such a program, or how we should judge its fairness.

  3. Thank you for your comments and summary here. Just curious if the he differences between children who live with both parents with children of divorce. Curious. Thanks.

    • timbartik says:

      DIfferences in early childhood program impacts between single parent families and two parent families are not addressed in the current book. Off the top of my head, I am unaware of estimates of differences in these effects that have been estimated in the well-known experiments.

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