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A life-changing policy opportunity: At MLC meeting, Nobel Prize-winning economist explains why investing in children, families can pay off for states

by Tim Anderson ~ 2016 MLC Annual Meeting Edition ~ Stateline Midwest »
Few early-intervention initiatives for children have been studied more closely and for a longer time than the HighScope Perry Preschool Program. It began in 1962, when 123 children from the Michigan town of Ypsilanti were identified as being at a high risk of failing in school. About half of these young people then received high-quality care and education, including home visits and help for parents. The others received no assistance at all.
The progress of these children has been monitored for years, and the early results weren’t promising. By the time they had reached age 10, gains in IQ scores had waned: Students who went through Perry and those who did not had similar scores.
But as it turns out, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman told lawmakers at this year’s Midwestern Legislative Conference Annual Meeting, that early-intervention program in Michigan was making a huge difference — and has continued to do so for decades.
“It was not a failure,” Heckman said in a session built around the MLC chair’s initiative of Wisconsin Rep. Joan Ballweg. “Where the failure resided was in thinking that IQ and these measures of cognition were the only measure, or most important measure, of what school and intervention programs do.
“That is a misconception that really should be rooted out of public policy.”
In fact, researchers have noted astonishing long-term impacts from Perry: By age 40, young participants in the program were more likely to hold a job, have higher levels of educational attainment and have committed fewer crimes.
Even when not including improved health and other benefits, the preschool program showed a benefit-to-cost ratio of 7:1.
“It changed the character and the social and emotional skills of the children,” Heckman said about the early intervention. “It brought them in and made them fully active, engaged citizens in the larger society.”
That Perry research helped highlight Heckman’s underlying message to the Midwest’s legislators: Investments in early-childhood development can pay big societal dividends and reduce income inequality, but only if they spring from smart, informed policy.
“Ability is something that can be shaped and that can be a target of public policy. … The real lesson is that parenting matters, bolstering parenting matters, and social and emotional skills matter greatly.”
And the earlier that intervention comes, the better.
Large gaps in achievement among children with mothers of varying education levels already appear at age 3, an indication that prenatal care and the birth-to-3 years are critical to development. And one other notable finding from the Perry study was the impact that early family interventions have on child-parent interactions. Parenting styles, researchers found, became warmer and more supportive.
“Families do a lot more than pay tuition and college bills,” Heckman said. “They build values and motivate children. We need policies that help challenge American families and that work with families and develop the skills needed for childhood success.”
Preventing vs. solving problems
Forty-five years ago, the United States came close to taking the first step toward universal child care with congressional passage of the Comprehensive Child Development Act. President Richard Nixon vetoed that bill, however, citing the need to protect the sanctity of American families raising their own children.
Nixon raised a valid concern, Heckman said, and it is a point that policymakers should remain mindful of today.
For example, provide families with resources that promote positive parenting, but don’t tell mothers and fathers how to parent. And rather than having states or the federal government deliver early children’s programs and family supports, he said, turn to private industry and local community groups.
But he also urged state legislators not to ignore the body of evidence that exists from the Perry preschool study and many others, and also to understand the consequences of the country’s changing family structure.
Close to 40 percent of births in the United States are now to unwed mothers, he said, which itself has been a significant contributor to rising inequality.
“It’s not going to be easy to reverse this trend,” Heckman said. “I know some people have proposed that. What I’m proposing is that we understand the trend, we live with it, and we ask, ‘What are the consequences for children?’ And then we adopt policies accordingly.”
Broadly speaking, this means new state programs that support quality parenting and help build cognitive, social and emotional skills in young children.
“Instead of just solving a problem after it occurs, think rather of preventing the problem in the first place,” he said.
Right policies reduce long-term costs
As part of her introduction to Heckman at the MLC session in July, Rep. Ballweg shared with her legislative colleagues some of the emerging early-childhood policies in her home state. Wisconsin, for example, has implemented a five-star system that rates the state’s child care providers and helps them improve quality of care.
“Over the past two years,” Ballweg said, “Wisconsin has seen an increase in the number of children served by high-quality programs.”
The state also now funds home-visiting programs that serve at-risk families living in high-risk communities. These programs can help pregnant women make healthy choices that lead to healthy, full-term babies, and they also target assistance for families with children from birth to age 8.
One goal of state-funded home visits is to prevent child abuse and neglect, and to reduce the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences. Known as “ACEs,” they can have negative, lifelong effects on young people.
And to help people suffering from the impact of adverse childhood experiences, Wisconsin is training health providers, social service agencies and others about how to deliver trauma-informed care.
Rep. Ballweg and her colleagues have also started a bipartisan Legislative Children’s Caucus. That group’s first event brought together a diverse field of experts (psychologists, social scientists and economists) and legislators to focus on early childhood.
“With the right policies in place, the results will be reduced costs and more-productive citizens in each of our Midwestern states and provinces,” Ballweg said to her legislative colleagues at the MLC Annual Meeting.
As chair of the Midwestern Legislative Conference, Wisconsin Rep. Joan Ballweg is helping raise awareness among her fellow legislators about the value of making smart investments in early-childhood programs.


As chair of the Midwestern Legislative Conference, Wisconsin Rep. Joan Ballweg is helping raise awareness among her fellow legislators about the value of making smart investments in early-childhood programs.