Progressive Universalism

The findings showing that the right kinds of experience in early childhood are keys to a productive, successful, and enjoyable life are compelling. So is Heckman’s claim that these findings require us to redirect social policy—to change our strategies for our collective investment in children. More resources should be targeted at early childhood, and, perhaps more important, the early years should be given greater priority in terms of the intellectual and institutional resources devoted to devising high quality interventions.

The barriers to success are considerable: one political party is devoted to reducing the supply of public funds and attention to public well-being; both are responsive to constituencies with a big stake in the status quo. But, as Heckman signals, there are other kinds of political danger. Even more than schools policy, policy around early childhood triggers anxiety about the cultural vulnerability of the disadvantaged. Reformers are accused of assuming a “deficit model” of poverty, which locates the problem in the capacities, beliefs, and practices of the target population. The charge is, in effect, disrespect for the cultural values of the disadvantaged.

Consider discipline. Reformers point to evidence that time-outs and consistent, careful reasoning with children about proper behavior are more effective in fostering educational success and enjoyable personal relationships than are corporal punishment and the expectation of unreasoned obedience. So, for example, the Baby College at the Harlem Children’s Zone teaches these strategies to young parents and parents-to-be, contradicting the cultural norms of their community. Opponents of that policy argue that it imposes white middle-class cultural norms on those young people, compounding the injustice of poverty.

Underlying this accusation is a truth. Certain traits and behaviors that are not in themselves desirable or valuable are unfairly rewarded. Sociologist Annette Lareau (see her response) observes that a firm handshake and the ability to make eye contact help in a job interview, and they do so just because they are valued by the dominant culture. A child who is taught that respect for authority requires a deferential demeanor is worse off in the early competition for employment. Reformers advocating that poor and working-class children be taught the more commonly rewarded behaviors are indeed endorsing inculcation into white middle-class values.

Still, reformers such as Heckman should answer the complaint robustly.

Interventions may impose white, middle-class norms, but that shouldn’t stop reformers.

First, they might point out that there is little prospect that the dominant culture will become much more eclectic in the characteristics and behaviors it prefers. Should children already disadvantaged by the conditions in which their parents have to raise them be handicapped further because reformers are overcautious about imposing their values? We will surely never achieve equal opportunity in a society with so much material inequality, but where we can improve the prospects of disadvantaged children by teaching those behaviors valued by the dominant culture, it is unfair not do so.

More important, many of the traits rewarded by the dominant culture really are valuable. Literacy and numeracy and the abilities to defer gratification and care for one’s health are all important in just about any modern society and useful no matter what position one ends up in. Being raised in poverty tends to hinder the development of these traits, regardless of one’s parent’s culture. Poverty imposes stresses on adults, which compromise their ability to do their best for their children. Because the Baby College is voluntary, the accusation that it “imposes” anything is unreasonable, but if effective compulsory interventions to improve the parenting capabilities of poor young adults could be devised, it would be wrong to withhold them for fear of making cultural impositions.

As Heckman recognizes, intervening against parents’ cultural norms is costly to them, especially where it stigmatizes an already disadvantaged population by appearing to mark them as bad parents. Consider the difference between programs such as Perry Preschool, which can be billed as providing for poor children the educational experiences that everyone else is already getting, and the Nurse-Family Partnership, which tries to reshape the values and behaviors of disadvantaged parents. While the latter are justified if they improve the child’s quality of life, they can be stigmatizing.

One possible solution to the challenge of intervention against cultural norms is universal provision. The United Kingdom’s health visitor program—which, among other things, sends nurses and midwives into people’s homes—is seen as a resource rather than an intervention because it is available to all through the National Health Service. Nobody is stigmatized by it, and, incidentally, its universality protects it politically. Of course, universal programs are also more expensive, which is why the economic efficiency and workforce productivity aspects of Heckman’s case for early intervention are so important. His suggestion that services could be provided universally but charged on a sliding scale by family income—an approach known among Brits as “progressive universalism”—is a realistic way forward.