Heckman on Ability Gaps
Cognitive abilities are important determinants of socioeconomic success. So are socioemotional skills, physical and mental health, perseverance, attention, motivation, and self confidence. They contribute to performance in society at large and even help determine scores on the very tests that are commonly used to measure cognitive achievement.
Ability gaps between the advantaged and disadvantaged open up early in the lives of children. Family environments of young children are major predictors of cognitive and socioemotional abilities, as well as a variety of outcomes such as crime and health. Family environments in the U.S. and many other countries around the world have deteriorated over the past 40 years.
Experimental evidence on the positive effects of early interventions on children in disadvantaged families is consistent with a large body of non-experimental evidence showing that the absence of supportive family environments harms child outcomes. If society intervenes early enough, it can improve cognitive and socioemotional abilities and the health of disadvantaged children. Early interventions promote schooling, reduce crime, foster workforce productivity and reduce teenage pregnancy.
These interventions are estimated to have high benefit-cost ratios and rates of return. As programs are currently configured, interventions early in the life cycle of disadvantaged children have much higher economic returns than later interventions such as reduced pupil-teacher ratios, public job training, convict rehabilitation programs, adult literacy programs, tuition subsidies or expenditure on police.