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  • “[W]hat we don’t have—and to me, it’s an amazing deficiency—we don’t any good economic and social study of the impact of a mother on the child’s outcome.” James Heckman Tweet This
  • The importance of the family undergirds many current policy debates including inequality, poverty, and child care—unfortunately we don’t want to talk about it, according to Nobel Laureate James Heckman.   Tweet This

It’s difficult to find papers about child care policy that don’t cite University of Chicago economist James J. Heckman. His notable contributions include the Heckman Equation, which asserts higher investment in the early years pays great dividends later in life. That word, “investment,” is most often taken to mean public dollars spent on public systems and universal programs.  

Reading about Dr. Heckman’s work makes listening to Heckman himself incredibly surprising. In a recent conversation between Heckman and visiting AEI scholar Katharine B. Stevens hosted by the American Enterprise Institute, Dr. Heckman stressed his concern for the family unit rather than emphasizing the need for public programs. Whatever the program or system, he said many times over, “the whole activity has to engage the family.” 

“Nobody wants to talk about the family, and the family’s the whole story,” he told Stevens during the event. “And it’s the whole story about a lot of social and economic issues.”

The research supporting the Heckman Equation shows disadvantaged children benefit the most from early childhood interventions. Yet even in public programs for targeted populations, Dr. Heckman’s desire is to incorporate parents. “The idea that the program and the mother are separate is crazy,” he said during the AEI event. “[T]hese childcare programs that I’ve looked at are only successful when they kind of ‘turn on’ the parents. They get the mother informed, and they get the mother engaged," he explained. "That’s the secret for them…It’s engaging the family, and frequently, the mother is the family.”

He went even further in talking about the influential role that mothers play. “[W]hat we don’t have—and to me, it’s an amazing deficiency—we don’t any good economic and social study of the impact of a mother on the child’s outcome,” he noted, continuing: 

It’s amazing to me, when we see these high rates of return on early childhood programs, and I’ve written about them, we get returns of about 13% per annum. I’m willing to bet that if we really evaluated what the benefits were of a mother working with the child, we’d find rates of return of more like 30 or 40%. But nobody has ever studied it.  

Universal child care proposals are often sold on their purported role in diminishing inequality. On that point, Heckman referenced his study of Denmark, a country that has a host of equalizing social programs, including universal child care. In spite of these programs, he noted, inequality mirrors what one sees in the United States. 

“What we really have come to understand is that some of the major growth of inequality has nothing just to do...with hourly wage rates at the factory; it also has to do with the change in family structure in the larger society: more single-parent families,” he emphasized. “And what does that mean, then? It means that often the mother is with the child; she faces the burden of supporting that child, and she faces a lot of stress…financial stress… And by the way, the single-parent family has fewer resources, and so as single-parent families grow, inequality itself grows.” 

While Dr. Heckman does believe that child care programs can be universal, he also said he believes fees should be based on income. He justified his support of universal child care by pointing out that most advantaged families will not choose to use a universal program because they have other, better options. “Why not have the universal?” he asked. “[If] you go to advantaged environments, they are not going to use them. You can offer these programs, and they are not going to take them, if parents can go to Waldorf-type schools. So in some sense, it’s a political ploy—universality.”

On this point, a follow up question is probably in order. The data show take up of low cost child care even or particularly among the advantaged when the state subsidizes and therefore sanctions this form of care. It seems odd to support inequitable funding, acknowledging that those with enough money will make other choices—the very choices those who are lower income might themselves prefer to make. 

“Nobody wants to talk about the family, and the family’s the whole story. And it’s the whole story about a lot of social and economic issues.” James J. Heckman

He also affirmed that “systematically,” the “greatest benefits [of universal child care programs] are to the disadvantaged.”

In listening to Dr. Heckman, one gets the sense that he is past caring what others think. Thus, he did not hesitate at one point to use the word “warehouses” in describing the highly-vaunted Quebec universal child care program, the only one of its kind in North America. He noted that the research by Baker, Gruber, and Milligan showing poor outcomes in Quebec is solid, and that child care centers in Quebec were, “fairly impersonal and there wasn’t any real quality.” 

Concerns that mediocre universal child care might displace good parenting are not without warrant. As Heckman stated, “If you take someone from a quality environment and put them in an inferior environment, you can make them worse off. No question.” He emphasized that “Quality has to be a sine qua non of the whole enterprise.” 

As someone who has examined early learning and child care policies for over a decade, Dr. Heckman's remarks come both as shock and encouragement. Heckman is unequivocal about the power of the home and how it is undervalued and under-studied both in research and public policy. He champions the importance of mothers, who he acknowledges are generally still the ones taking primary responsibility for babies and toddlers even in our gender-neutral age. To me, it’s a vindication from one of the most cited men on the planet regarding early learning and child care. 

“We do want to harvest the powerful force of love and attachment to the child. That is such a powerful force,” he said, adding later, “I wish the family would get back into more of the center of our lives." 

Parents will always matter more than any program or professional in a child’s life. It doesn’t hurt to have an esteemed Nobel prize winner and early child care expert say so. Now, the difficult challenge is for public policy makers on both sides of the ideological aisle to embrace the Heckman vision in its fullness. 

The full AEI conversation with Professor James Heckman can be heard here.

Andrea Mrozek is Senior Fellow at public policy think tank Cardus