The three essential truths of public policy according to James Heckman
Nobel laureate James Heckman has spent years studying how we can invest in people so that the money actually make a measurable, positive difference in their lives. What he’s learned (pdf) can be summed up in two words: Start early.
Public policy to promote skills has to reckon with three essential truths distilled from a large body of research conducted in the wake of the War on Poverty. First, the skills needed for success in life are multiple in nature. Success requires more than cognition and smarts. Soft skills are important. Conscientiousness, perseverance, sociability, and other character traits matter a lot, even though they are largely neglected in devising policies to reduce inequality.
Second, skill formation is a dynamic, synergistic process. Skills beget skills. They cross foster and promote each other. A perseverant child open to experience learns more. Early success fosters later success. Advantages cumulate. Young children are flexible and adaptable in ways that adolescents and adults are not. It is much easier to prevent deficits from arising in the early years than to remediate them later. The War on Poverty took a shotgun, scattershot approach to fostering the skills of disadvantaged persons of all ages and stages of development. Its policies did not target the years when interventions to promote skills are most effective.
Third, families play an essential role in shaping the skills of their children. Skill formation starts in the womb. The early years of a child’s life before the child enters school lay the foundations for all that follows. Large gaps in abilities between the advantaged and the disadvantaged open up early before children enter school. Unequal as they are, American schools do little to widen or narrow these gaps. The family plants and nourishes the seed that grows into the successful student and adult. Families in jeopardy produce children in jeopardy who often grow into adults who fail to realize their potential. We know much more about the powerful role of the family in shaping adult skills than we did in the 1960s.
Here’s more from Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias. They’re arguing over whether it’d make sense to take $50 billion out of K-12 education and put it in early-childhood development. I think that probably would make sense if it was the only option on the table, but I’d urge people not to think of the federal budget as so siloed. What would really make sense is to reduce the growth rate of Medicare, or cut spending on weapons and wars, and put some of that money into giving young Americans the best chance to live healthy, happy, productive lives.
| March 7, 2011; 3:27 PM ET
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