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Economist: Public School Should Start At Birth Because So Many Families Are A Mess


Government preschool programs typically have little effect on needy children because they begin too late, says economist James Heckman and colleagues in a new paper (PDF) funded by government preschool advocates. So he says there’s good reason to start public “school” as early as eight weeks after birth for at-risk children — which typically designates those born into low-income and unmarried parents. In other words, he thinks we need a new welfare program run by Donald J. Trump.

Most government spending on education-themed programs for small children is targeted at those age four and older, which is too late to affect crucial language development, Heckman noted to The Atlantic, despite the preschool lobby’s long use of his research to urge these same programs. That’s his explanation for the failures of these programs after 50 years of drastic expansion across the country. None of the promises of massive social benefits after passing government early childhood programs have made their way into reality. In fact, the most recent research shows mass early childhood programs have even made more kids hate learning and commit more crimes. So, from preschoolers on to babies!

“If you look at disadvantaged children you’ll find that they’re getting about a third or a fourth as many words per hour as more advantaged children,” he told NPR. “The environments are fundamentally different. Over the lifetime, their young childhood — a period of say 0 to 5 — you’re getting a millions of words deficit between those who are advantaged and those who aren’t advantaged. That essentially is one way to close the gap. By literally reading to the child, by encouraging the child.”

Research shows that the most well-proven, gold-standard environment for a child is the one provided by living with his or her two biological, married parents. No social program has ever come close to enriching a child’s life the way living with his own two married parents does. Married parents are the ones most likely to give children the reading and encouragement Heckman describes as crucial to language development. Language ability is a leading indicator of lifelong achievement and social stability gaps between the children of married and unmarried parents. Yet the proportion of children born into father-deprived homes has dramatically risen in the last 60 years, provoking calls like Heckman’s for more government services to fill the void.


Heckman, who won a Nobel Prize in economics for showing how to help correct errors that arise when studies use non-random samples, studied two tiny, dated programs that preschool advocates keep going back to because they are one of the few that show any long-term positive results for participants. The total children studied between the two programs is approximately 160 (I’m being generous and approximating because some participants participated in some phases of the studies but not in others). Approximately half of the kids involved were in the control group, and thus did not participate in the full-day childcare programs being studied, which included “wraparound services” such as medical and dental care and parent therapy.

In essence, these programs functioned as modern-day orphanages for deprived children, from which parents were allowed to “check out” their children on nights and weekends. It’s an arrangement in which the state is pretty visibly the unwed mother’s child-raising partner, and has pretty extensive visitation rights.

So, based on outcomes from about 80 children whom 45 years ago received an experimental childcare experience that was extremely well-funded and staffed by some of the world’s best child-care experts (i.e. nothing at all like any government-funded early childhood intervention program), Heckman suggests we’ve got results good enough to expand the welfare state yet again “on behalf of” 40 percent of America’s children. They say Nobel Prizes give one a big head, but sheesh.

Put Your Money Where You Want Mine to Be

Here’s what I want. I want all the advocacy organizations to put their money where their mouth is, instead of taking money from functional families to not help dysfunctional ones. If they really believe that North Carolina’s Abecedarian project is a life- and society-saver for destitute children, why aren’t they funding another, bigger replication project? Update it, expand it, perfect it.

Experiment with how it could be possible to do this at the rather breathtaking scale needed to address America’s genuinely sickening word gap for the “1,151 babies…born into extreme poverty” “every day in America.” Right now we don’t just have the millions of highly skilled early childhood professionals a program like this would need to go nationwide. We’re talking at least $16,000 per child per year for five years, times nearly 10 million kids aged 0 to 5 who were born to single mothers. For a country that can’t pay for its past social welfare outlays, proposing another based on a sample size of fewer than 200 for a 40-year-old program that’s never been replicated is rainbows and unicorns crazy.

Those who don’t think so despite all the evidence should pony up or real. Show it’s possible. Social programs, and especially education programs, are notorious for never scaling up. Government preschool advocates like Heckman, who knows the research deeply, know this is the case. So it’s fishy they’re not advocating for an intermediate program to see if their research can defy all the odds and materialize in broader gains once expanded.

The fact that organizations that support a larger social-welfare state are putting their money not into actually scaling up a working model of their ideal programs but to manipulate and coerce Americans into it with carefully funded, limited-base, unreplicated policy-pushing research like this should make voters suspicious. If they really believed their own words, they’d be putting them into action. Desperate kids are waiting, after all! Why wait when millions in Bill Gates’ money is just sitting there, funding doomed PR spin for Common Core?

The fact that they don’t suggests they’re playing a different game than “help the children.” They’re playing “change the society,” and holding up propaganda pictures of cute, crying little kids to hide what’s going on behind the surface.

Family Is the Best Destitution Prevention Program

I agree that we have a literacy crisis in our country, a skills gap, a word gap, whatever you want to call it. All these have their roots in something else nobody ever seems to want to talk about: our nation’s epidemic of families in crisis. Instead of talking about the need to expand the biggest social welfare state in the world besides Norway, we should back up a little. Let’s talk about how we should address the social crisis of two in five children being born into a kind of home that social scientists on both the Left and Right unanimously agree sets them up to fail.

For Pete’s sake, Heckman’s own research reinforces the idea that restoring the family is the key to alleviating the massive social and economic problems created by family chaos. At the end of his interview with NPR he give a series of heartbreaking comments essentially saying that what can rejuvenate life for a needy child is a person in their lives, not with special training or degrees, but with “empathy.” Someone who loves and talks to and reads to that child. How can stuffing kids into centers to be cared for by thousands of paid employees ever provide that at a mass scale over reinforcing, recreating, even plain forging into voids the natural, intimate, personal bond of love that does and ought to exist between a mother, father, and child?

Well, yes, we’re talking about empathy, and we’re talking about the structure of engagement with the child, and at the core of successful programs is parenting. It’s not so much having a pretty building. There’s a whole mentality out there that says, “We have a textbook notion about what constitutes a good school. The teachers must have a certain level of educational attainment.” There have been a lot of studies, serious studies, that show that many of these so-called guides to what makes a good teacher — in terms of things like number of degrees or number of teacher credits and on and on and on — are really worthless in terms of predicting who’s a good teacher. What is important is finding this empathy, this ability to work with people, the engagement.

By empathy all I really mean is, you work with a child, you stay with a child, a child asks questions, you answer the questions. You don’t discourage the questions and you promote them. At the same time you have a firm line where you say, ‘Yeah that’s a mistake. You could go do a little better,’ and so forth. (emphasis added)

This is what a mother (and father) does for a child, and money can’t buy these babies love. It’s almost insane to me to jump from “these poor children and families are starved for love” to “so let’s pay people to take care of them all week, starting at birth!” If restoring needy families and children were merely a question of money, their problems would already be over. America’s poor are the materially richest people on the planet.

So economists like Heckman and the Left more generally need to stop seeing people through the Marxist frame of mere economic actors, robotic objects we can upgrade through systems analysis. We need to talk about how people respond to both economic and social incentives against marriage and the often irreparable heartbreak it causes their children, whose pain affects us all.