If I Had a Billion Dollars: Early Childhood Interventions

by Site Author

This is the second in a series of posts about good causes in the United States. I’m taking on a simple question: Where can donations do the most good?

My first post suggested that charter schools deserve more funding. A second answer: early childhood interventions.

James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, has spent ten years studying child development. He has made one point over and over again: when you intervene in children’s lives earlier, you do more for them.

That notion is based on a handful of randomized controlled trials, mainly The Perry Preschool Study and The Abecedarian Project. Both studies went something like this. A randomly selected group of infants were given intensive care. A specialist would spend hours with each infant, and would also train the parents regarding how best to care for the infant. The treatment was very expensive, and it lasted for years.

But, by the time the children were teenagers, the benefits were clear. The kids who received the intervention were less likely to drop out of school, less likely to be held back a grade, and, eventually, less likely to have extremely low incomes. Heckman argues that the internal rate of return for such an intervention is larger than nearly any other investment that the government (or a private donor) could make.

It’s not clear whether an extreme version of Heckman’s view is certainly right: whether early childhood interventions are more effective than all other interventions later in life. Heckman’s view has faced some revisionism on this point. But it seems as though Heckman is, at the very least, partially correct: these early-childhood interventions really seem to work.

Sadly, though these interventions have been proven to be effective, the government is not rolling them out widely. This is where a billionaire can help. Here’s an investment that has been proven to be worthwhile, and yet few organizations are making it.