“Have-not” takes on a different meaning in James Heckman essay on disadvantaged children — the scarce resource is quality of parenting

In the current Boston Review, University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate James J. Heckman makes a powerful argument for social policy to improve the early lives of disadvantaged children.

He asks a series of questions to consider before implementing such a policy. The first is “Who should be targeted?” It is, of course, the disadvantaged.

Now, we all know that “disadvantaged” is often another word for “poverty”. But Heckman points out something very important: The “proper measure of being disadvantaged,” he notes, doesn’t necessarily mean the lack of money or even parents’ education.

“The available evidence suggests that the quality of parenting is the important scarce resource,”

he writes. “So we need better measures of risky family environments in order to achieve more accurate targeting.”

It’s a fascinating piece, bolstered by the scientific evidence found in the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study linking early adversity to adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, and social problems; neurobiological research that shows how early toxic stress damages children’s brains; epigenetic data that shows how genes can be turned on and off by our social-emotional environment; and data from projects showing that early interventions improve children’s lives as adults.

The question “Who should be targeted?” addresses one of the ideas that emerged from the CDC’s ACE Study, and the subsequent ACE surveys that have been done in 18 states: that adverse childhood experiences can lead to poverty. Poverty by itself — meaning a lack of money — does not cause adverse childhood experiences. It’s what else is happening in poor families that creates “disadvantaged” children — domestic violence? alcoholism? a parent with a mental illness? physical, sexual or verbal abuse? In other words, unhealthy parenting.

As Dr. Robert Anda, one of the co-founders of the ACE Study has pointed out, if you look at adverse childhood experiences from the perspective of an epidemiologist, then the middle class, which was shown to have an alarming amount of childhood adversity, is the reservoir. Unless middle-class families also receive help, then childhood adversity, like any virus that is not contained, continues to multiply and spread. For example, without intervention, a middle-class family whose parents have ACE scores of three may raise four children with ACE scores of four. Two of those children end up in poverty because the effects of their childhood trauma left them with an inability to focus, an inability to develop healthy peer relationships, or mental or physical health problems because they turn to alcohol, tobacco and food to cope. They drop out of school, their  health problems affect their ability to develop solid careers, they marry other people with similar problems, and they pass their dysfunction on to their children, who have ACE scores of five or six.

Pile racism, social inequality, poor schools and an economic crisis on top of this, and one of Heckman’s measures — high school graduation rates — emerges as a significant measure of families in trouble. 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,” he notes. “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.” That’s a startling and unsettling number. It has economic consequences for the nation, not only for the health of the economy, but also for the increasing amounts of money that must be spent on health care — physical and mental — as well as emergency services, police, courts and prisons.

To whet your appetite, here’s a bit of Heckman’s essay:

So early circumstances are important, and attention matters. But what precisely makes the difference in these adverse early environments? The conventional measures of family disadvantage used by many social scientists are number of parents and family income. But the available evidence from developmental psychology and neuroscience suggests that these measures are very crude proxies for the real determinants of child outcomes. There is much commentary on the benefits of two-parent families, but the presence of a father can be a net negative factor if he shows antisocial tendencies or if marital conflict is substantial. A large body of evidence suggests that a major determinant of child disadvantage is the quality of the nurturing environment rather than just the financial resources available or the presence or absence of parents. For example, a 1995 study of 42 families by Betty Hart and Todd Risley showed that children growing up in professional families heard an average of 2,153 words per hour, while children in working-class families heard an average of 1,251 words per hour, and children in welfare-recipient families heard an average of 616 words per hour. Correspondingly, they found that at age three, children in the professional families had roughly 1,100-word vocabularies, in contrast with 750 words for children from working-class families, and 500 words for children of welfare recipients.

Strengthening the observation that conventional measures of childhood adversity are inaccurate is a study of an American Indian population that was suddenly and unexpectedly enriched by the opening of a casino. The study showed substantial improvements in baseline measures of disruptive behavior among the children. The beneficial effects of the intervention were mediated by changes within the family. With more money, parental supervision of children improved, and there was greater parental engagement. In this natural experiment, income improved parenting, but it was the changes in parenting that reduced disruptive behavior.

The worrisome news, then, is that early environments play a powerful role in shaping adult outcomes, and more and more American children are growing up in adverse environments. The good news is that environments can be enhanced to promote important skills in children and that society need not passively observe its own polarization and decline. Policy can matter.

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