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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."