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Surprising Return on Enrichment for Babies

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 21, 2014

Policy makers concerned with income inequality need to focus more attention on improving the early environment of disadvantaged babies and toddlers, recent economic analysis suggests. Being born into poverty doesn't have to mean a lifetime of deprivation, researchers say, and the earlier the helpful intervention, the higher society's return on the investment.

High quality early childhood programs have been shown in numerous studies to have substantial benefits in reducing crime, raising earnings, and improving educational outcomes, Frances Campbell, Gabriella Conti, James Heckman and colleagues wrote recently in Science magazine, and now research shows that life's earliest experiences strongly effect adult health.

Heckman and Conti are among the top economists who have done extensive studies on human development. They have found that wealthy children and those from deprived environments have disparities in cognitive performance even before they start kindergarten, and the gap doesn't close with time. Research by Heckman and Flavio Cunha at the University of Pennsylvania shows that the divergence between rich and poor kids in math ability is about the same at age 12 as it was at age six.

Eduardo Porter writes in The New York Times that the achievement gap between rich and poor American students is one of the widest among the 65 countries that take part in the Program for International Student Assessment run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Porter suggests the acrimonious debate over how to improve American education misses the most important time-the years from infancy though pre-school. Heckman, Conti and others report that interventions from infancy through age five pay extremely high returns. Good early programs improve cognitive skills and foster softer skills such as sociability, motivation, perseverance and self-regulation. Heckman and colleagues say those are the traits that enable kids to use their cognitive skills for future learning and adult success.

Two well documented programs are illustrative. The Perry Preschool Project offered intensive social and cognitive skills building for disadvantaged three and four year olds from 1962 to 1967 in Ypslanti, Michigan. A study found Perry graduates at age 40 were more likely than those in a control group to have finished high school, to hold jobs, and have higher earnings.

The Abecedarian Project in North Carolina started in 1972 with 111 infants who were followed from birth through their mid 30s. The children were randomly assigned with half in an intervention group and half in a control group. Children in the treatment group received regular pediatric care, good nutrition, and stimulation in language, cognition, and emotional self-regulation from infancy through age five. Parents also were trained. In the second phase, through age eight, the focus was on math and reading. The group that received the special early care did better educationally, and by age 30, members of this group were four times more likely than those in the control group to have graduated from college, be employed and have health insurance.

The health findings were a surprise. Men in the treatment group had less hypertension and none had metabolic syndrome, the cluster of conditions that raise the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke. One in four of the control group had metabolic syndrome. Women in the treatment group were less likely to be obese, less likely to drink before age 17, and they had healthier habits.

What about the small size of these samples? Heckman says the dramatic disparities between these treatment and control groups actually strengthen results because such differences are unusual in small sample experiments.

In a New York Times article, Heckman wrote that "the economic rate of return from Perry is in the range of 6 percent to 10 percent per year per dollar invested, based on greater productivity, and savings in expenditures on remediation, criminal justice and social dependency. This compares favorably to the estimated 6.9 percent annual rate of return of the U.S. stock market from the end of World War II to the 2008 meltdown." The Abecedarian Project lasted five years and cost $67,000 in 2002 dollars, he said, and produced substantial adult health benefits and cost savings. In Heckman's view: "Early childhood interventions are an unexplored and promising new avenue of health policy."

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  health 

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