Recent headlines have carried news of far-reaching recommendations from the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Reform created by President Obama to explore ways to reduce the federal debt. Among the information presented to the panel was a 12-page letter from James Heckman, the University of Chicago economist who won a Nobel Prize in 2000. “To reduce America’s debt and increase its productivity,” Heckman advises the panel to invest in high-quality early education or risk putting “our country’s future in peril by producing a deficit in human capital that will take generations to correct.”
Like Heckman, business leaders have come out in favor of high-quality early education. Last month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce launched a multiyear initiative for early education.
Heckman has called high-quality early education “America’s best economic stimulus package” and estimates that investing in early learning yields a 10% annual rate of return. If a high-quality program enrolling low-income children costs $8,000 per child, Heckman notes, then a 10% annual rate of return for the investment in an individual child provides $789,395 in benefits over the following 65 years.
“Human capital is and always has been one of our country’s greatest natural resources,” Heckman writes. “How can we best invest in human capital development to increase workforce capabilities, raise productivity and social cohesion and assure America’s economic competitiveness in the global economy?
“Data from economists, social scientists and medical experts conclusively shows that the answer is to invest in comprehensive early childhood development—from birth to age five—particularly in disadvantaged children and their families. I strongly urge you to keep this in mind when recommending ways in which to reduce America’s debt and increase its productivity. Ignoring this finding will put our country’s future in peril by producing a deficit of human capital that will take generations to correct.”
Although Heckman places particular emphasis on children from low-income families, he finds that parents at all income levels need help in a society and economy that make their job difficult. “The problem is not just income. Recent research suggests that parental income is an inadequate measure of the resources available to a child,” he writes. “While higher income facilitates good parenting, it doesn’t guarantee it.” Heckman argues that high-quality early education not only improves cognitive skills, but also helps children develop “perseverance, motivation, self-esteem, self-control, conscientousness and forward-thinking behavior” – in short, “the cognitive and character package that drives productivity.”
“Successful nations invest in building equity,” Heckman writes. “In economics, achieving equity is to build lasting value that builds upon itself. My work has shown that proper investment in people builds stronger equity on all fronts. Early childhood education is a proper investment economically and morally.”