DMI Blog

Andrea Batista Schlesinger

The Wall Street Journal advocates for helping poor children.

Today, I read the shocking news by a Nobel laureate from my alma mater, the University of Chicago, that investing in disadvantaged young children is not only fair public policy, it is good economics. Alert the presses.

I read the Wall Street Journal Opinion page every morning because it adds levity to my 40-minute commute. Some days I read about how the excess of trial lawyers is the real reason behind skyrocketing insurance costs in a time of record insurance company profit. Some days I read about the evil labor unions that have the audacity to support community organizations who share their goals on one side of the page while reading pieces lauding the conservative movement and its wealthiest donors for supporting the think tanks that advance their agenda on the other side. Today was especially interesting:

"It is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and, at the same time, promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large. Investing in disadvantaged young children is such a policy. The traditional argument for providing enriched environments for disadvantaged young children is based on considerations of fairness and social justice. But another argument can be made that complements and strengthens the first one. It is based on economic efficiency, and it is more compelling than the equity argument, in part because the gains from such investment can be quantified -- and they are large." - JAMES J. HECKMAN, Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2006

Mr. Heckman's advocacy for investment in "disadvantaged children" is appreciated. (It would be even better if he didn't accept being disadvantaged as a permanent condition, like "bad jobs" and "poverty," or explored its origins, but we're appreciative of his message just the same.).

But the notion that fair policy is also cost effective isn't a new one. In fact, it's an argument that practical progressives have been making for a long time. Make a college education accessible and affordable and you increase the tax base. For example, according to the United States Census Bureau, on average, bachelors' degree recipients earn roughly $20,000 a year more than high school graduates, and $10,000 more than people who have only partially completed a degree program. Offer the opportunity to attain a college education to women receiving public assistance, and 88 percent will move permanently from public assistance and out of poverty. We make arguments about efficiency and the economic benefits of progressive public policy all of the time. The only problem is that the strongest advocates for the free market are usually only interested in efficiency when it doesn't hurt their short term bottom line.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Heckman concludes his piece by pandering to his audience, saying "Children from advantaged environments, by and large, receive substantial early investment, while children from disadvantaged environments more often do not. There is little basis for providing universal programs at zero cost, although some advocate such a policy." He offers vouchers as his proposed policy remedy. Que sorpresa.

I'm not sure how he can both issue a grand call to invest in children who live on the margins and are, for the most part, unable to access adequate early school options, and reassure the readers of the Wall Street Journal that such an effort won't cost a dime. Whatever happened to thinking boldly about America's future and asking all Americans to sacrifice towards that end? Would it really have offended the readers of the Wall Street Journal, those who should be most concerned with the bottom line and with keeping the ranks of the educated and job-ready high and the criminal and dependent low, to be asked to join in a massive public-private commitment to provide high-quality early education to all children regardless of their color or social class? And how about a little mention of the importance of resisting the President's efforts to cut Head Start while lauding its success in improving the non-cognitive skills of poor children?

I'm used to the contradictions of the Wall Street Journal, like their front-page series on the decrease in economic mobility coupled with editorials supporting policies, like the estate tax, that keep poverty and wealth equally entrenched.

But don't be fooled by this piece. An argument about economic efficiency won't convince the White House and the conservative movement to invest in early childhood education of the poor. Because the free market is only free when it doesn't cost them now.

(Cross posted with Huffington Post).

Andrea Batista Schlesinger: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 9:41 PM, Jan 10, 2006 in Economy | Education | Fiscal Responsibility | Progressive Agenda | Welfare
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