James J. Heckman’s Giving Kids A Fair Chance

There is a very easy and reliable way to measure the sincerity of someone bemoaning “inequality,” one of the most loaded words in modern politics, and that is to assess their focus on early childhood development. Long before two people compete for the limited openings at America’s elite universities or the most prestigious and high-paying jobs on offer in the corporate world, their odds of success were heavily tilted, one way or another, by the accidents of their birth and the first few years of their lives. And as we do a better and better job constructing a culture that abhors the ancient prejudices of race, class and gender, the effects of childhood developmental disparities get magnified. Today, in the words of Nobel laureate James Heckman, currently ranked as the world’s second most influential economist by the RePEc paper citations database, “we live in a society in which birth is becoming fate.” America’s growing class stratification, whereby children of the wealthy and well-educated go on to become wealthy and well-educated themselves, while an entire underclass forms beneath them, locked out of the best that the post-industrial world has to offer and denied the minimum comforts of the former industrial world (a stable job and marriage in a functioning community), has become a social disgrace and a political liability, mocking the promise of the country as a “land of opportunity” and supercharging populist forces on the left and right.

Heckman joins Robert Putnam in pointing to a troubling trend: income inequality is today less a function of unequal access to resources than to a nurturing home environment, which is much rarer today than it was a half-century ago.

A growing faction of our children are being born into disadvantaged families, where disadvantage is most basically a matter of the quality of family life and only secondarily measured by the number of parents, their income, and their education levels. And that disadvantage tends to accumulate across generations.

Strikingly, Heckman declines to discuss why these past four decades have witnessed such a steep degradation of the parental environment – that would take another book, I suppose – but as an economist with the ear of governments, charities, and NGOs, he is interested what public policy decisions might be enacted to reverse the ill effects. One of these is particularly damning, the more so because it is largely overlooked: the decline in the male high school graduation rate. “Properly measured, the high school graduation rate in America has fallen. Over that same period, the real wages of high school graduates have increased relative to those of high school dropouts. These growing wage differentials have increased the economic incentive to graduate from high school. So the reversal in graduation rates is striking and troubling.” Heckman made a name for himself disaggregating decades of data on high school graduation and GED completion, and what he learned makes a mockery of the “official” graduation rate of American high school students, reported at 88%, with promising convergence between the black-white and Hispanic-white rates:

These numbers are badly misleading. The biggest problem is that they include General Education Development (GED) recipients as high school graduates. GEDs do not graduate from high school, but they certify as the equivalent of ordinary graduates by passing an exam. Currently 12 percent of all new high school credentials issued each year are to GEDs. But a substantial body of scholarship shows GED dropouts in the U.S. labor market. Including the GEDs in official graduation rates thus conceals major problems in American society. For example, a significant portion of the racial convergence in education reported in the official statistics is due to black males obtaining GED credentials in prison. But, when released, these men earn at the same rate as ex-convicts who did not earn GEDs. Moreover, the GED does not reduce recidivism.

In other words, our official graduation statistics aren’t only misleading but a poor measure of the expected earning potential of America’s youth.

What happens when we take the GEDs out of the graduating group and focus exclusively on native-born American children? The result is that the high school dropout rate has increased. In fact, the U.S. high school graduation rate peaked at around 80 percent in the early 1970s and has since declined by 4-5 percentage points. Roughly 65 percent of blacks and Hispanics now leave school without a high school diploma, substantially higher than the dropout rate for non-Hispanic whites. Contrary to claims based on the official statistics, there is no convergence in minority-majority graduation rates for males over the past 35 years. Moreover, exclusion of incarcerated populations from the official statistics substantially biases upward the reported high school graduation rate for black males.

Next comes the really painful part, and credit to Heckman, because he is only the second person I’ve read who has dared utter this fact: the gaps emerge painfully early, long before the usual rationales (wealthy neighborhoods, superior schools with smaller class sizes, additional private tutoring) can play any part in creating them.

The gaps in cognitive achievement by level of maternal education that we observe at age eighteen – powerful predictors of who who goes to college and who does not – are mostly present at age six, when children enter school. Schooling – unequal as it is in America – plays only a minor role in alleviating or creating test score gaps.

Even the harder-to-quantify “socioeconomic” skills – study habits, say, or deference to the authority of teachers – emerge this early, leaving us precious little time to intervene.

Heckman’s solution – one that, as you will see, requires a strong advocate – is to redirect or at least greatly redistribute our spending efforts towards early childhood interventions, which he argues pay dividends later on as well: “skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation.” He cites, as evidence, two such famous experiments in early childhood intervention: the Perry Preschool Project, conducted on 58 low-income black children in Ypsilanti, Michigan, between 1962 and 1967, and the Abecedarian Project, conducted between 1972 and 1977 on 111 disadvantaged children in North Carolina whose home environments “scored high on a risk index.” Both interventions involved additional classroom instruction and at-home visits – in fact, in the case of the more intensive Abecedarian program, the interventions were full-day and year-round, involving private tutoring at a 3:1 infant-to-teacher ratio, as well as at-home tutoring and parental aid so extensive that it came to include helping the parents find work or taxi their children to and from school. Because both experiments involved lengthy follow-ups at various later stages of the participants’ lives, we have good data on the long-term effects: a slight increase in IQ that “disappeared gradually over four years following the intervention,” but promising gains in the high school graduation rates and drops in the incarceration rates. The Perry students were half as likely as the control group to be enrolled in special education, more than three times as likely to score “basic” in their academic achievement at age 14, and roughly 20% more likely to graduate high school on time. Measured again at age 40, however, the gains are more significant: 29% of Perry students earned at least $2,000 per month, compared to just 7% of the control group; 36% of Perry students owned a home, compared to just 13% of the control group; and 29% of Perry students never required welfare assistance, compared to 14% of the control group.

The trouble, of course, is that such interventions are costly (between $13,000 and $20,000 per year per student) and politically explosive. Towards the end of Giving Kids A Fair Chance, Heckman invites short criticism from a panel of prestigious economists, social scientists, child welfare advocates and others – a unique feature , at least as far as my reading experience goes. Few of them quarrel with his data, but many point out that what he is in effect proposing is a state-sponsored intervention into the parenting practices of a substantial number of disproportionately non-white Americans, and that that is unlikely to be well received by voters. Still, if he is correct in his assessment that more favoured and approved of interventions – “job training programs, high school classroom size reductions, GED programs, convict rehabilitation programs, and adult literacy programs” – are “not effective, at least not as currently constituted,” then is it so unreasonable to think we might prefer an uncomfortable solution to a comforting illusion? Alas, the question answers itself.