Rethinking Family Life

James Heckman provides an economic argument for a claim that is often thought to be supported at most by moral considerations: greater societal involvement in the early childhood experiences of children from disadvantaged homes can close the skills gap between those children and others, thereby reducing our widening inequalities.

In Heckman’s account, early interventions are efficient as well as equitable and just: they cost far less than doing nothing, and less than later interventions that do little. There is no reason then that economists, or anyone else concerned with putting dollars into wise investments, shouldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with social workers, feminists, educators, and anti-poverty activists who for decades have been making the case for intensive pre-K education for infants and toddlers.

But while Heckman’s is a hopeful message, I have a few concerns. First, it’s puzzling that he doesn’t note the incidental effect of the interventions he advocates in improving the lives of the women whose parenting is apparently so disadvantaging. Women who mother in poverty without partners may be putting their children at risk, as Heckman worries, but they also put themselves at risk: early motherhood, with no help from a partner and little and dwindling help from the state, takes a severe toll on a young woman’s potential as an income earner, a citizen, and a full member of the civic community. The hours a young mother would gain from having her toddler or infant in a pre-K program could enable her to return to school, if her own education had been interrupted by her pregnancy, or to find a wage-producing job. With greater income and a sense of accomplishment in the workaday world, her mothering would likely improve along with her self-esteem and overall well-being. This would strengthen both the equity and the efficiency side of the case for early intervention. I don’t understand why it isn’t part of Heckman’s equation.

Second, Heckman’s focus on the quality of mothering, rather than on the quality of parenting, is striking and odd. The damage caused by poor mothering is much discussed, and the damage done by abusive fathers is briefly noted, but the damage done to both children and mothers by absent fathers receives nary a mention. If single mothering, as Heckman insists, creates the most risk for kids, absent fathering is a central, even necessary component of that risk. Presumably even very bad mothering would improve with at least adequate fathering. The kind of early intervention Heckman envisions might bring absent fathers into the picture to re-engage with their children and with their obligations as parents.

As family ideals go, Heckman’s model is remarkably unjust.

The model of excellent family life that Heckman presents is also peculiarly maternalist. A thriving family setting for young children, according to Heckman, is apparently one in which a mother does an awful lot of focused, nurturant, engaged childcare with much reading aloud and is employed full time outside the home and has a college degree or more. Fathers, in the cases of advantaged child and disadvantaged child alike, receive barely a mention.

As family ideals go, this one is remarkably unjust. Surely, as Susan Okin argued several decades ago, a family in a just society ought to be itself just, and justice requires that parents share the labor as well as rewards of successful parenting. Heckman’s model may lead to good outcomes in children’s readiness to acquire skills, but it will demonstrably lead to poor outcomes in their readiness to acquire, and use, a decent sense of justice. That is as essential to successful life as a citizen as skills are to successful life as a worker.

Third, I wonder if Heckman understands the political challenge his proposal will face. Stigmatizing large swaths of the population—unmarried women, women of color, and poor women—as unfit to parent will trigger justified worries about the right to conceive and bear children without fearing an overly intrusive state. But that’s not half of the battle. Resistance to greater intervention will more likely come from the political right—specifically, from the extraordinarily influential homeschooling parents and their advocates, who seek to dismantle K–12 public education by convincing states to weaken or abandon their laws requiring attendance at public or certified private schools, by keeping their children home, and then pushing, with considerable success, for the deregulation of homeschooling. More than two million children are now homeschooled by parents who may not themselves have even high school diplomas, and often with no supervision of any form from state educators or social workers. Heckman’s suggestion that public involvement in the schooling of children be expanded to reach children as young as six months will trigger alarm bells among this organized political faction within Republican Party circles.

I do not mean to suggest that Heckman has not put forward a wise proposal for an efficient as well as just response to widespread and worsening poverty. But it is against the grain of a ferocious and remarkably effective parents’ rights movement, whose first goal is to minimize—indeed eliminate—the role of the state in the education and upbringing of children. Mild calls for cultural sensitivity of the sort that Heckman makes will do little to calm those waters.