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Leave It to the Private Sector

February 7, 2013 in Economics

By Neal McCluskey

Neal McCluskey

This article is part of
Promoting Social Mobility
, a forum on using early intervention
to reduce inequality.

James Heckman is right: our ability to succeed is not determined
solely by our genes, and some early childhood programs have had
lasting, positive effects. But those effects aren’t necessarily
big, and how to take them to scale is a huge unanswered
question.

Studies certainly show that more than just genetics affects
children’s success. Research by David Armor, for instance, reveals
that factors such as infant nutrition, cognitive stimulation, and
the number of children in a family significantly affect a child’s
IQ. Even Bell Curve coauthor Charles Murray admits that
“maybe we can move children from far below average intellectually
to somewhat less below average.” His concern is that “nobody claims
that any project anywhere has proved anything more than that.”

Which brings us to the central question: What can be done to
optimize the outlook for children who “by accident of birth” do not
have sufficient access to crucial resources?

A small number of
studies report positive results for early intervention programs;
most do not.”

Heckman relies primarily on two efforts—the Perry
Preschool and Abecedarian programs—to illustrate that early
childhood interventions can have lasting, positive effects. But are
the effects meaningful in an absolute sense, rather than just in
comparison to control groups, and can they be replicated on a large
scale?

The long-term Perry results are decent, but not great. As
Heckman reports, at 40 years of age, 29 percent of the Perry
treatment group earned at least $2,000 monthly in 2004 dollars.
That still-small percentage beat the control group, but $2,000
monthly—$24,000 a year—fell well short of 2004’s nearly
$34,000 per-capita income. Similarly, 29 percent of those treated
had never been on welfare as an adult, but that means 71 percent
had.

Then there’s Perry’s minute size and appreciable cost: Only 58
people were treated, getting 2.5 hours of preschool each weekday
and a 90-minute weekly home visit by a teacher. The estimated cost
per student in 2012 dollars was $12,506.

Abecedarian involved 111 subjects, 57 of whom were treated. The
services started at infancy, addressed dietary and hygiene needs,
and provided year-round, full-day preschool.

Abecedarian’s effects as subjects hit 30 years of age were
recently assessed, and outstripped Perry’s. For instance, 23
percent of the treatment group graduated from a four-year college,
below the national rate of 32 percent for 25-29-year-olds, but not
bad. A calculation of household income put the treatment-group
average at middle-class, but that was based on self-reported data
and included welfare benefits. On the flip side, 27 percent had
been convicted of a crime, well above …read more
Source: OP-EDS  

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