Invest early in children from disadvantaged families

In 2020, 221,000 children were living in a family whose income was below the low income threshold, according to Statistics Netherlands. This is an average of two children per semester. Efforts have long been made to help low-income families and reduce inequality of opportunity in society. Government usually addresses this inequality along two lines: redistribution of resources through taxes and benefits and through education.

US economics professor James Hickman and his colleagues show that neither method helps much or not at all. Income transfers help lower-income families financially, but they don’t help give children in these families better opportunities.

And inequality among children hardly diminishes through primary and secondary education. Research in Denmark and the United States shows that differences in scores for self-monitoring, cooperation, and reading skills are already present at three years of age and increase rather than decrease afterwards. These early age differences have predictive value for the number of years of education eventually followed, income at age 40 and the chance of a criminal conviction.

Why didn’t this income and education transfer policy really work? Because, as Hickman argues, it’s not just about money, and it’s not about intelligence or cognitive skills.

Success in life, along with your cognitive skills, depends largely on your so-called “soft skills,” which are neither soft nor unimportant. It refers to the following basic skills: self-control, perseverance, curiosity, enthusiasm and motivation. Dutch research by Lex Burgans and colleagues (Maastricht University) also shows that personality is more important than intelligence for predicting a range of important life outcomes, such as success in school, payment later in life, receiving social benefits, depression and mental health, physical health and body mass index, and the likelihood of criminal behavior and whether someone will vote.

It also appears that the earlier in life social and health policy is started, the greater the effects and the better the cost/benefit ratio. Care, early education, learning experiences, and physical health from ages zero to eight greatly influence the likelihood of success or failure later in life. These results are summarized in the “Hickman equation”.

learning difficulties

As the child grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to remove an obstacle to the child’s development in education. On the contrary, often, over time, defects increase because social, emotional, and educational defects prevent adequate assimilation of new material and further development of social skills. Hickman concludes, “The greatest return on ECD is achieved by investing in disadvantaged families as early as possible, preferably from birth to age five. Starting at age three or four is too little and too late, because it ignores the fact that Skills generate new skills in a complementary and dynamic way. Efforts should be focused on the early years to achieve the greatest efficiency and effectiveness. The best investment is the development of the early years.”

Research shows that preventive programs cost more than compensate. The most important lessons are: Policy should choose support and early prevention rather than ‘reform’. Research shows that the same programmes, which are as effective as prevention, do not help solve problems, such as child abuse. There are currently several options for strengthening policies towards young families and their children.

In the Netherlands, health care for young people plays an important role in identifying such cases at an early stage, and the legally scheduled prenatal home visit has been in place since 2021. It is therefore important that pregnant women and especially vulnerable families receive appropriate support, with the aim of removing stress and promoting sensitive behaviour. Specific interventions for pregnant or young mothers (and partners) are, for example: ‘Not Pregnant Now’, ‘Precautions’ and ‘Strong parenting’.

positive effects

Perry Preschool is one fun example for preschoolers. Children aged 3 to 4 years received additional attention for two and a half hours per day, five times per week. The traces were still visible at the age of forty. Children who attended Perry Preschool were more likely to graduate, earn more, live healthier lives (less drug use, fewer sedatives), and were less likely to be arrested for a crime compared to the control group without the intervention. The positive effects are clearly visible in the next generation.

The first years of life laid the foundation for the subsequent years of life. Elimination of the buildup is rarely effective. There is a need to develop more active policies during the first five years of life. There are a lot of examples of working projects. Rapid implementation of successful projects in concrete national policy is required.

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