January 29, 2008

Heckman pushes education to fight poverty

The key to designing effective policies that combat social inequality in America lies in early childhood education, said Nobel prize–winning economist James Heckman in a talk last Tuesday.

More than 150 students and faculty members gathered to hear the U of C economics professor present his findings on the correlation between early childhood education and financial success in adult life. The event was hosted by the Chicago Society and moderated by professor of economics Allen Sanderson.

Heckman told audience members that a lack of perseverance and other non-cognitive skills normally fostered through early education keep poor children poor. These skills are learned best by children between one and six years old, he said.

“It’s cheaper to educate kids well when they’re younger,” Heckman said.

He added that late-intervention programs such as job training, prison rehabilitation, and adult literacy services have low economic returns and sometimes even long-term negative results. He said that studies have demonstrated that educating disadvantaged children before the age of six correlates strongly with greater lifetime incomes for them.

The GED is an example of a late intervention program that does not reduce inequality, Heckman said. Although GEDs do “work” in terms of marking cognitive skills equivalent to those of a high school graduate, they fail to take into account non-cognitive abilities, such as perseverance and motivation, he explained. His research suggests that those with high school diplomas earn more than those with GEDs, despite having similar cognitive abilities.

Heckman said he faults the flawed nature of educational systems that further socioeconomic inequalities.

“I didn’t mention CEO pay once,” Heckman said. “Somebody getting paid more than somebody else is not the problem.”