“Every night and every morn / Some to misery are born. / Every morn and every night / Some are born to sweet delight. / Some are born to sweet delight, / Some are born to endless night.”
Written in 1803, Blake’s words are a depressingly accurate description of the United States today. America is polarizing, increasingly a country of haves and have-nots. According to James Heckman’s lead article in this issue’s forum, the greatest source of this inequality is precisely, as Blake says, the accident of birth. Heckman is Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and 2000 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics. He argues that children born into disadvantage are, by the time they enter school, already at risk of dropping out, teen pregnancy, crime, and a lifetime of low-wage work.
To remedy this terrible inequality of fate, Heckman calls for refocusing social policy toward early childhood interventions designed to enhance both cognitive and non-cognitive skills. Acting early, he argues, has much greater economic and social impact than the later interventions—from reduced pupil-teacher ratios to expenditures on police—that consume public policy debate. His urgent call to action offers some practical steps about how to design and pay for new programs.
Heckman’s respondents—from Charles Murray to Geoffrey Canada—question the effectiveness of early interventions, defend other kinds of programs, and wonder whether he is right to concentrate on inadequate parenting, rather than on poverty itself. Despite their disagreements with Heckman’s proposals, almost all agree that the problem of inequality starts when children are very young and poses a profound social challenge. We hope that our forum is the beginning of a serious public conversation on this issue. We are grateful to the Spencer Foundation for making it possible.
Finally, we are happy to welcome longtime contributor B. K. Fischer as our new poetry editor. She will join Timothy Donnelly in curating the poetry and criticism in each issue. Fischer is the author of three books. Mutiny Gallery, a novel-in-verse, won the 2011 T. S. Eliot Prize; Museum Mediations: Reframing Ekphrasis in Contemporary American Poetry is a critical study; and her newest, the poetry collection St. Rage’s Vault, will be out next February. She teaches at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, where she is also co-editor of Slapering Hol Press. We also are delighted to welcome back Mary Jo Bang, who will be helping to select poems for the magazine. Finally, many thanks to Benjamin Paloff, Barbara’s predecessor, for his years of good work for BR.