Don't Just Start Early – Start With the Poor

Writing today in Eureka Street, Daniel Donahoo makes a key point about the difference between universal and targeted early childhood intervention. Key quote:

At the centre of the discussion is the name Dr James Heckman. Heckman was the Nobel Laureate for Economics in 2000. His work extends across human capital and productivity. He is interested in lifelong learning and this led him to research early childhood development.

It is his research into investment into early childhood development that has produced the paraphrase, ‘for every dollar invested into the early years of a child’s life, we save up to ‘x’ dollars in the long run’.

This is one of the most misunderstood and misused quotes I have come across in my time as a researcher. It is littered through the ALP’s child and family policy documents. It is used by a vast number of early childhood professionals and advocates and used as a sound byte regularly by the media.

But it is being used incorrectly. No one appears to recognise the context in which Heckman made that statement.

The claim is based on an intensive research project and longitudinal studies from the United States. These studies, such as the Perry School Study, take young disadvantaged children and put them in early childhood development programs run by tertiary educated professionals at low child-teacher ratios for up to 40 hours a week until they start school.

The studies demonstrated that children in the intensive early childhood programs had substantially improved their opportunities and outcomes in later life. They were less likely to commit crime, more likely to finish high school, would earn more and so on.

In fact, for each dollar invested in those children, Heckman has established the government saves seven to nine dollars by the time they reach adulthood. In the Perry School Study, most of these returns came from reduced crime — a factor that won’t apply to middle class Australian children.

Heckman’s research targets children living in significant disadvantage. As a result, his conclusions are only relevant for children in similar target groups.

Even recently, in his 2007 paper titled ‘The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children’, Heckman and co-author Dimitriy V. Masterov conclude that while the research highlights a need for greater investment in disadvantaged children, ‘none of this evidence supports universal preschool programs’.

[Emphasis added.]

 On the same theme, see this policy report by Sara Mead, and an oped of mine in the AFR.

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3 Responses to Don't Just Start Early – Start With the Poor

  1. So there are no savings to be made from targeting middle-class Australian children? Phew! That means I don’t need to feel guilty about not getting my middle-class kids tutored before they went to school?

    What? What was that you said? This is about government spending on pre-school tutoring and not about individual parents choosing to have their children tutored? And that makes the difference?

    Hmmm. Not sure how that works…

  2. Fred Argy says:

    I couldn’t agree more Andrew (it’s been my theme in recent years), but there is a difficult trade-off between economic effectiveness and politics here. While there is community support for equality of opportunity, the public still sees it as something for everyone on issues like health, education, housing, child care development etc. But all is not lost. Rudd may be able to present the idea in universal terms but explain why for ”budgetary reasons” he needs to start with the poorest.

  3. Thinking in old ways says:

    As with you Fred I think Andrew has touched on the nub of the issue in this post.

    I see the politics as being somewhat different. I think the strongest case for targeted early intervention for children is based on the fact that some family environments are not very good for kids and that in these circumstances these kids can be given ‘a fairer chance’ if they have the opportunity to spend some time in some alternative environments that are better designed to nurture/support them.

    The political trade-off here is not about the community’s willingness to see special treatment being given to one group, but rather in the willingness of government to propose programs that are based upon the premise that some parents/families are bad for children. That is we, as a community, are not willing to say we need such program because some people are not good parents.

    Interestingly this trade-off has been made by use of latent racism and the amorphous concept of communities as a whole being dysfunctional in the case of the recent Indigenous interventions – without really too much attention to the role of individual families and parents.

    This is not to argue that early interventions are a cure all – or will have positive impacts for all kids living in significant disadvantage – let alone that the inflated cost-benefit returns quoted by some have any reality – but rather that some kids who are victims of their parents behaviour and attitudes may have a chance for a ‘fair go’.

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