James J. Heckman: an economist who makes sense

I was recently given a link to a really powerful article in The New York Times.

The article was by Nobel Prize-winning economist, James J. Heckman of Chicago University.

The article, “Lifelines for poor children” was one of the clearest and best articles that I have ever read by an economist! It is part of a series in the New York Times called “The Great Divide” which is examining the growing and very worrying gap between the rich and poor in the United States.

This divide can also be seen in many other countries such as my own (The United Kingdom). Heckman looks at what needs to be done in order to combat the inequality which he rightly says is based on where and to whom a child is born.

Interestingly, he uses research from other disciplines such as psychology and neuroscience, to investigate the importance and financial impact of expenditure on early childhood support. He makes a very convincing argument for the financial gains for a society of intervention in the early years.

He states that so much expenditure goes on catching up for children who do not develop as they may have done with the right support in both cognitive and, significantly, non-cognitive skills. (These non-cognitive skills include ability to focus, to persevere and to co-operate). It seems to me that we have here an excellent argument for politicians to actually do something positive (indeed, according to Heckman, profitable).

Heckman cites actual evidence of pioneering  projects undertaken in Michigan and North Carolina. The best evidence can be found in the social and financial leap of faith taken in the province of Quebec in Canada. They invested in large scale early childhood family support and intervention strategies and have seen marked increases in cognitive gains in children from poor and disadvantaged areas. I would strongly recommend that you read the article. There are a number of videos about Heckman and his work on YouTube. A really interesting one can be seen below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SuPQFtI_vJk&feature=youtube_gdata_player

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