Early Childhood Social Intervention Directly Impacts Health and Success

James Heckman, PhD: ‘The early years are very important times and places for lifetime success.’

Investing in early childhood education for socially and economically disadvantaged children makes sense. Every dollar invested in early childhood development returns between $7 and $13 annually in improved physical and mental health, more education, higher income, and reduced crime over the succeeding decades.

“What is socially fair is also economically efficient,” says James Heckman, PhD, Henry Schultz Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2000. “Even if you discount the social element, there is an opportunity, based solely on economic grounds, to intervene early to build healthier, more productive lives.”

Prof. Heckman discussed the research evidence supporting early childhood intervention Saturday during his Opening Ceremony address, “Developmental Origins of Health and Well-Being.” Interventions as simple as teaching new mothers in low-income neighborhoods for one hour every two weeks how to be better parents produces demonstrable benefits into their children’s adult years.

Success in life and in society is determined largely by one’s capabilities or traits, Prof. Heckman says. Cognitive capacities such as attention span and self-control are part of the picture. So are social and emotional skills and biological traits.

“Success in life has a heritability component,” he says. “But the role of heritability has been exaggerated both in popular notions and in public policy. DNA itself means nothing. It is how it is expressed that counts. And that expression is heavily influenced by environment, especially the family environment.”

Childhood cognitive scores can be predicted by maternal education levels and similar socioeconomic factors. So can adult education, income, health status, risk behaviors such as tobacco and drug use, involvement in criminal activities, and related measures.

Early childhood intervention doesn’t just improve lifetime outcomes for children. Helping children changes their own family dynamic for the better. Children who benefit from early intervention pass those socioeconomic gains on to their own offspring.

“The early years are very important times and places for lifetime success,” Prof. Heckman says. “Public policy should act on those opportunities. Targeting early disadvantage is good public policy.”

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