A policy no-brainer

Some years ago it was my privilege to be involved with some work with James Heckman, commissioning him to look at skill policies in Scotland (the paper is published in [amazon_link id=”0691122563″ target=”_blank” ]New Wealth for Old Nations[/amazon_link]). So I’ve been aware of his absolute passion – this is no overstatement – for directing policies to help ensure children have the best possible chances in life. His careful econometric work, for which he won (with Daniel McFadden) the Nobel memorial prize in economics in 2000, identifies the causes of later disadvantage as lying in children’s earliest years, and in the development of non-cognitive skills and emotions as well as cognitive skills, on which so much policy attention is focused.

This work is encapsulated in a new Boston Review book he has written, [amazon_link id=”0262019132″ target=”_blank” ]Giving Kids a Fair Chance (A Strategy That Works)[/amazon_link], which includes as always some responses to Prof Heckman’s essay. The discussion is US-centric, but the analysis certainly applies elsewhere. The strategy promised in the subtitle is: “that predistribution – improving the early lives of disadvantaged children – is far more effective than simple redistribution in promoting social inclusion and, at the same time, at promoting economic efficiency and workforce productivity. Predistributional policies are both fair and economically efficient.” This is a rare and worthwhile combo – although, as he would point out, it does take the state into family life in ways that can feel uncomfortable, even when the families in question are impoverished or chaotic or damaged.

The responses make some good points. Emphasising early interventions should not make policy-makers give up on later interventions. Appreciating non-cognitive skills should not lead to the patronising and damaging assumption that children from poor backgrounds can’t make the grade academically. One contributor takes issue with Heckman’s emphasis on poor mothering rather than poor parenting, noting the damage caused by absent fathers.

Still, I agree with Carol Dweck’s summing up: “His review of the scientific evidence is compelling and makes the case that parental training and educational enrichment in the early years have critical and lasting effects on children.” There are not many areas of public policy where the evidence is so clear and experts from across the disciplines have such a high degree of consensus. Politicians have no excuse for not acting on it.

[amazon_image id=”0262019132″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Giving Kids a Fair Chance (Boston Review Books)[/amazon_image]

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