Who wouldn’t be happy with a 13.8 percent return on investment? A stockbroker who could do that would have investors beating down his door.
Nobel prize winner economist James Heckman was in Jackson last month presenting evidence that early childhood intervention can yield a 13.8 percent monetary return for the state of Mississippi.
Lest you think this is a bunch of left-wing hokum, Heckman was introduced in the auditorium of the new Civil Rights Museum by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, who enthusiastically endorsed the use of daycare centers as early intervention platforms.
“We have talked for years about how do we teach these children literally from birth to when they go into a pre-K program,” Bryant said in his introduction. “We’ve talked about how we’re going to put them on a school bus. Put bigger buildings out there in the public education system now. We can go further than that. We know where they are at. So we are going about training our daycare workers through our community colleges with a grant to the Department of Human Services so we are putting a learning component with the daycare workers.”
The concept of reaching disadvantaged children at a young age is nothing new. The federal Headstart program has been around for decades.
What’s new about Heckman, a University of Chicago economics professor, is his rigorous methodology of tracking the participants of early childhood programs and measuring how their success in life creates a compelling investment return justifying the government spending.
Heckman, as he told the crowd, is not a social worker. He is an economist. He is concerned about tracking the return on the government investment in early childhood education
Heckman has discovered two key things: First, you can indeed track and quantify the return on investment for different early education programs. Second, some work. Others don’t. Those that work can confer a huge return on social investment.
Which ones work? Basically, the earlier the better. The first three years are critical. Heckman’s website has a wealth of data, reports and analysis illustrating how a state such as Mississippi could reap an amazing return that could transform the state.
Gov. Bryant has it right. Daycare is where the action is. You’ve got infants at the very earliest stages of life. That’s where you get the biggest bang for the buck. This is where we can break the cycle of generational poverty.
As Bryant said: “Now think about what we do. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the societal trend that brought us to this point. We oftentimes find a daycare worker that would be paid minimum wage. We take our children, and we put them there in that facility. We’ve got to do a better job.”
The concept is simple: Get the single mother into a job training program. Get the infant into a daycare center with trained professionals who can positively influence that child’s cognitive development at the earliest, most critical phase. Break the cycle of poverty.
Bryant said, “Every child in Mississippi deserves a nurturing, safe daycare center with a learning component. Not just in Madison County and on the coast but in Sunflower County and Holmes [County}. Is there enough money to do everything we want? Not yet. Do we try every year to … improve it? Absolutely.”
Do this correctly and Mississippi gets a 13.8 percent return on its investment, as Heckman has proven.
Which goes back to my opening line. Who would turn away a chance to make a 13.8 percent return on their money?
Just think how much money we spend incarcerating 30,000 people every year at $40,000 per inmate. Mississippi has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the country. Think of the cost of crime, subsidized health care and welfare. Compare that with productive, tax-paying citizens who contribute to the state GDP. That’s what Heckman does. Track all that and put a number to it.
As Bryant said, “There’s nothing wrong with trying to find a single mother in the Mississippi Delta and put her into a workforce training program. We want her to have not just a job but a career. We want her child to grow up and have that outcome of success so that they are going on to a college of their choice.”
Technology, disruptive though it may be, is creating breakneck progress. Global poverty is down from 50 percent to 20 percent in just the last two decades. In another 15 years, global poverty will be an incredibly low five percent. World prosperity is exploding.
We now have tools and knowledge that we once didn’t have. We have access to Heckman’s research. We have excellent professionals right here in Mississippi who know the correct next step.
Last year, Mississippi spent $199 million of federally funded money on Headstart. But Heckman’s research shows Headstart gets a low return on investment. There are better ways to do it. You have to start earlier and use different techniques.
One program with an extremely high return on investment is the Abecedarian approach, ABC for short. It’s intensive and it starts very early. In an ideal world, we could have highly trained personnel at all daycare centers implementing the ABC approach.
The University of Mississippi has the Graduate Center for the Study of Early Childhood Learning, headed by education experts Melody Musgrove and Cathy Grace. There’s also the Mississippi Early Childhood Education Association. We have great experts who know what to do.
Mississippi has so much potential. The path forward is becoming clearer. It is frustrating not to have the money to do what needs to be done, especially when the return is so compelling. We are so close to getting there. I may not live to see it, but I believe my children will.
Wyatt Emmerich is president of Emmerich Newspapers, Inc. in Jackson.