It is well known that children's socioeconomic background shapes their outcomes in school, both intellectually and behaviorally. However, most policies focus on improving schools, taking those disadvantages as given and simply acknowledging them as an excuse for inadequate performance. But another alternative is to actually improve these early background conditions. And, at least as I interpret them, most such policies could be called "Early Childhood Investment." For the sake of clarity, let's go over some examples of early social disadvantages and policies that are being (or could be) used to reduce them.*
Background: Home Intellectual Environment
Literacy activities at home - like reading aloud, telling stories or doing art - predict better social skills, fewer teacher-reported behavioral problems and higher literacy rate. Table 1 takes race (white vs black) as the splitting source for children's background. It is seen that white adults spend 36% more time reading to young children than black parents. Raikes et al (2006) show that toddlers of low-income mothers who read to them daily have better vocabulary and comprehension at 24 months. Table 1 also reports that white parents interact over 200% more with their children in activities that develop their critical thinking and creative skills (like puzzle solving, arts or simply talking).
Table 1: Home intellectual environment (children age < 5).
Another standard proxy for intellectual environment is the number of books at home (though it is self-reported by parents, so it is not as objective as one would like). Table 2 shows that the better the socioeconomic status [SES] the higher the number of books. Similarly, white children live in households with 150% more books than black children. Behavioral skills of entering kindergartens in the top and bottom SES differ by 10-23 percentile points, and gaps do not disappear over time: over 30 ppt lower high-school completion rates and 15 ppt higher arrest rates are observed.
Table 2: Books at home, by race and socieconomic status.
By age 6, white children are reported to have spent over 1300 more hours engaged in conversation with adults than black children. Interaction with parents is one way children's choice-making and stances toward authority are developed. Upper-class parents typically give fewer orders, letting children develop their critical thinking and choice-making. On the other hand, lower-class parents expect more deference to authority. Similar differences are found for recreational activities between affluent and low-income families. Lower class children typically have more unstructured leisure time. Middle class children are more used to structured leisure, which is thought to help them operate later in controlled environments like classrooms.
Early Childhood Investment: Policies
Improving schools is certainly useful. However, coordinating school improvements with other community services that reduce these early disadvantages seems a very promising way to go. Here are some examples:
A clear pattern of these policies is that they do not simply target children. They also aim at teaching parents to get better involved in the development of their children. Taking into account that children spend most of their time at home (rather than at school), this makes a lot of sense. Moreover, it is also noticeable how early these programs start. Some begin even before children are born, and there is some consensus that the earlier the start the better the results.
Obviously no background influence is completely definitive. Some children with "bad backgrounds" may do better than some with "good" ones. We all know stories of some person who started from nothing and became a big success. But socioeconomic background does influence opportunities (or distributions of outcomes) and, as a summary statistic, it is seen that average outcomes of children tend to go hand in hand with their backgrounds. Complementing improvements at schools with reduction in backgrounds' inequalities, through some of the policies mentioned above, may be the way to go.
* I focus here on home intellectual environment characteristics. Other issues like wealth, housing, neighborhood, malnutrition or health provision may be equally important. Moreover, all these characteristics interact (household with positive intellectual environment tend to have high wealth and live in good neighborhoods for example) making precise estimates on the impact of each background element not possible, so numbers in this post should be read with caution (although measures are taken to reduce these issues).
Based on a recent Economic Policy Institute article.
Early childhood, when brain plasticity and neurogenesis are very high, is a key period for the development of skills (both cognitive ans psychosocial). Differences in this early investment might be the seeds of inequalities observed later in life across countries and within countries. More than 200 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of not reaching their full potential, the majority of them living in extreme poverty. Starting from a disadvantaged point, Figure 1 shows that remediation later is less effective and more expensive than early interventions.
Figure 1: Returns to investment by age.
Source: Heckman (Economic Inquiry, 2008)
An experimental study in Jamaica, recently published in Science, has provided more rigorous evidence on the benefits of early childhood investment. Growth-stunted children - reliable indication of severe economic disadvantage in developing countries - between the ages of 9 and 24 months participated in a 2-year randomized controlled trial. Usually we cannot compare the benefits of parents who themselves decide to promote their children's situation because of selection issues. For example, parents who invest in education are probably different in many characteristics from those who do not (maybe more motivated or caring for example). Hence, we would be comparing both the increased investment as well as parents "quality." To avoid this issue, the Jamaican study randomly assigned children to one of four groups: 1) psychosocial stimulation (explained below); 2) nutritional supplementation (1 kg milk-based formula per week); 3) both psychosocial stimulation and nutritional supplementation; and 4) a control group that did not receive treatment. Another group of non-stunted children was surveyed to provide a external comparison group, so that the question "Were these children able to catch-up?" were possible to answer.
Groups 1 and 3 participated in a program that consisted of two years of weekly one-hour sessions at home focused on improving parent and children interaction, with innovative activities to develop child cognitive, language and psychosocial skills. They were also encouraged to practice the activities and games learned during the visit beyond the home visitation time. The particularly interesting element of this project was the length of time for which children were studied. Participants were interviewed 20 years later and evaluated on a number of economic indicators. While stunted growth is largely due to a lack of nutrition, the nutrition intervention alone didn't affect later adult economic outcomes. The nutrition-only group showed no long-term effect on any measured outcome, but this may be due to the sharing of the nutritional supplementation within the family. On the other hand, psychosocial stimulation seems to have brought substantial long-term benefits.
In addition to improving direct parent-child interaction during the 2 years of the program, it seems that it also promoted greater parental investments later in life with an improved home environment, which probably improved later outcomes. Years of education increased by an average of 0.6 years by age 22, while college attendance increased three-fold. Even though they were also more likely to be in school (and hence working below their potential), their income was between 40 and 60% higher among those who received early psychosocial stimulation. Early intervention also reduced involvement in violent crimes.
Finally, could they catch up to remediate their initial disadvantages? Yes. The differences in income between children who were disadvantaged but received early stimulation and those who were not disadvantaged was zero (or not significantly different from zero). Early improvements probably encouraged the families to seek greater education and employment opportunities. 22% of the families in the treatment group emigrated to countries with great opportunities for upward mobility, compared with only 12% of the control group families.
These results are remarkable. Returns to early intervention are close to 10%, much higher and more persistent than other alternatives later on in life. So why are policies concerned with inequality so focused on re-distribution later on in life? Maybe instead we should try to pre-distribution during the earliest stages of life.
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