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1Over the last decade, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has produced a fundamental set of writings on the economics of early childhood. Heckman argues that many of the economic, social and health inequalities currently seen in the US are rooted in the early childhood period and that the strong intergenerational transmission of advantage and disadvantage found in the country today means that “birth is becoming fate” (p. 3). Early childhood, then, is precisely the period in which to impact on disadvantaged trajectories, as many cognitive and socio-emotional skills key to future educational and economic success are being developed during this period and are therefore at their most malleable. In the first section of the book, Heckman puts forward his argument on the need for intervention in early childhood to break the vicious circle of disadvantage that is polarizing the US population. Ten experts from a number of different fields ranging from economics to genetics to sociology then respond to his main argument, giving the book an interdisciplinary perspective on a highly sensitive political subject on which there is not always consensus across disciplines. The last word is Heckman’s; in the closing section of the book he briefly replies to these authors.

2The book is an excellent introduction to Heckman’s thinking on early childhood. The major thrust of his argument is summarized in the first section: social policy can fill the growing gap between rich and poor and should integrate three major research findings: 1) “non-cognitive” skills (such as motivation, attention and self-control) are just as important as cognitive skills and similarly predict social outcomes; 2) both cognitive and non-cognitive skills are developed very early in life, and once disparities in these skills appear they are hard to remedy; and 3) contrary to the claims of genetic determinism, intervention in early life can produce positive, long-lasting results. Those positive outcomes not only benefit individuals who participate in early childhood programs but have wider, spillover effects on children’s families and communities, in that they foster a more skilled workforce, reduce the need for welfare and social services, decrease the risk of teenage pregnancy, family breakdown, etc.

3Much of Heckman’s work is a contribution on this last point, particularly his studies of the Perry Preschool Project, extensively quoted in the book. The Perry Project was an intensive pre-school program conducted with 58 low-income African American children in Ypsilanti, Michigan, from 1962 to 1967. It consisted of a two-and-a-half hour daily schoolroom session for the children and one 90-minute weekly home visit from the teacher with the children’s parents. This was continued for two years. The project children and a control group were followed to age 40. According to Heckman, the Perry Preschool Project consistently shows positive outcomes for program children: while the initial IQ increase receded in the 4 years following intervention, the positive effects on non-cognitive skills and social outcomes persisted: participating children achieved higher educational qualifications, earned higher wages in adulthood, and were less likely to be on welfare or in prison. The Perry Preschool Project was expensive, but Heckman has estimated its returns (annual return per dollar of cost) at between 6% and 10%.

4This section concludes with a set of practical considerations: Heckman suggests that programs should target children from “risky family environments” (p. 35) and work on both cognitive and non-cognitive skills; they should involve both private and public agencies so that “diverse points of views are represented”; they should be “universal to avoid stigmatization” but “offer a sliding fee schedule based on family income” (p. 36); they should take into account obstacles such as cultural barriers.

5What makes this book particularly interesting is the criticism and objections to Heckman’s thesis in Section 2, directly after his own arguments. A number of authors from a range of disciplines and viewpoints discuss his thesis and put forward counter-arguments. Mike Rose points out that like other types of policy intervention, Heckman’s proposals target poor families’ behaviours while ignoring the sources of their poverty, including “the absence of jobs, lack of affordable housing.” Robin West argues that Heckman’s message is gender-blind, that he has failed to consider the impact of such programs on women’s lives, and that his focus on poor mothering as a driver of unequal child development fails to take into account the effects on children’s lives of poor fathering and absent fathers. Some authors raise methodological questions: Why put so much emphasis on results from small, old programs that report positive findings while ignoring the more mixed evidence from larger, more recent programs such as US Head Start? Can small, expensive programs like Perry Preschool be replicated on larger scales while maintaining quality and positive effects? With what resources? Finally, Lelac Almagor points out that some of Heckman’s language and its undertones are problematic: Heckman asserts that the scarce resource in disadvantaged families is not money but “love and parenting,” a claim that fails to take account of the serious and persistent social and economic obstacles these families face.

6Despite their criticism, all these authors agree that Heckman has spotlighted a fundamental lacuna in public policy and that his proposal is an effective contribution to debate on how to reduce worsening inequalities. That debate as documented by this book takes up some of the most difficult questions of our time: sources of inequality, the role of the state and education in solving social problems, and how to invest public resources most efficiently.

Uploaded on on 01/07/2016
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