Heckman Equation: Investing in Disadvantaged Young Children

by NDFAuthors

  • Jun 11, 2016

According to Professor James Heckman, providing support for disadvantaged young children is the best thing that policymakers and society can do to lower the high rates of crime, adolescent pregnancy, and high school dropouts.

In medicine, patients go to their doctors or to the hospital with a host of symptoms – numbness, fatigue, swelling, pain. Their doctors take stock of their symptoms, the physical manifestation and presentation of the patient’s illness. The doctors look at previous medical history, at various tests they’ve ordered – MRIs, CTs, x-rays – before they begin to rule out causes and finally narrow it down to the source of the patient’s symptoms.  They search continuously for the problem, so that they can fix it for good. They treat not the patient’s symptoms, but their underlying condition. They treat not what’s on the surface, but what’s on the inside. The rest falls into place.

Doctors treat the root of the problem, but it seems that the rest of us forget to do the same. Whether it’s in our personal lives, in the public sphere, or in policy – we often try to treat only the symptoms and expect the rest to fall into place. But treating only the symptoms isn’t a permanent fix. It repairs the surface-level damage without finding the source of the problem.

Disadvantaged Young Children’s Issues

In the United States, high levels of crime and incarceration and disturbingly large amounts of teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates are major problems. Policymakers are constantly vying over the right way to deal with these issues, constantly working to find solutions to these problems.

Copyright: Photographee.eu

Copyright: Photographee.eu

But are these issues really the problem, or are they the surface-level symptoms of a deeper cause? Is there something we’re missing?

Between the two issues, there is a common thread: disadvantaged children. According to Professor James Heckman, of the University of Chicago, providing support for disadvantaged young children is the best thing that policymakers and society can do to lower the high rates of crime, adolescent pregnancy, and high school dropouts. Underprivileged kids that are forced to fend for themselves are the root of our problem, and investing in them is the best, most economical and efficient way to treat the cause. The rest will fall into place.

Treating Only the Symptoms Isn’t a Permanent Fix

Currently, the majority of policy is focused on dealing with the consequences of leaving disadvantaged children out in the cold – retribution and rehabilitation for criminals, GEDs for high school dropouts, etc. But studies show that remedial programs such as these are far more expensive and far less effective as programs that help young children develop not just cognitive skills, but more importantly character-building and social skills. Two experiments in particular, the Perry Preschool Program and the Abecedarian Program, demonstrate the significant correlation between early environments for children and their adolescent and adult outcomes. It turns out that the most important factor in predicting how a child will end up is not cognitive ability, nor socioeconomic class. It lies in their environment, and in the foundational skills and relationships that children develop in the earliest years of their life.

Copyright: Andresr

Copyright: Andresr

The Perry and Abecedarian programs investigated the results of enriching the early environments of children living in low-income families. The data that they collected found that intervention provided long-term positive effects on the children’s academic achievement, job performance, and social behavior. The economic rate of return was at 14%, as compared to the standard return on stock market equity of 7.2%. Meanwhile, the public job training programs, adult literacy services, and other remedial services that are provided long after the harm has already been done, provide low economic returns. Because the individuals have a poor foundation filled with cracks and crevices, it is extremely difficult to build a strong house. The longer society waits to help, the less good it does for the people that need it.

What Is the Best Approach?

So what is the best way to deal with the root of the problem? What’s the best way to fix the central issue, so that the rest will fall into place?

It’s already been established that the earlier we start intervention, the more effective it is. The time between ages zero and three are the most critical and most significant. It’s in their baby and toddler years that the most good will come from intervention. However, that doesn’t mean that we can abandon them the moment they’ve lived three 365 day cycles. The benefits of investing in disadvantaged children are best sustained when it is followed by quality care. That means having strong schools and communities, and it means ensuring that the families are able to continue providing the environment necessary for fostering successful outcomes. We have to build strong character and motivation in the formative years, and we have to extend support beyond the children themselves to their parents.

Copyright: Monkey Business Images

Copyright: Monkey Business Images

However, such a task isn’t easy, and it’s important that we ensure we respect both the family and the cultures of the communities in which we’re present. To do this, Professor Heckman advocates for engaging private industry. Collaborating with the people and companies that exist in the areas that most need our help is a good way to provide support without crossing boundaries and invading people’s homes.

We could all stand to think a little more like a doctor, especially when it comes to the subject of our society’s most important resource – our children. Investing in disadvantaged youth is not only the moral thing to do, it is economical and efficient. It treats the underlying condition. The rest will fall into place.