The U.S. Census Bureau poverty statistics released in mid-September paint a painful picture of the nation’s reality: The official poverty rate in 2009 was 14.3 percent, up from 13.2 percent in 2008. According to the statistics, 43.6 million people live in poverty in the United States, the largest number in the 51 years for which poverty estimates are available.
Quite naturally, government officials in the United States are frantically asking, “What is the path to economic recovery?” One promising answer comes from a coalition of economists, policy experts, and business leaders called Partnership for America’s Economic Success (PAES). Recognizing that economic vitality depends significantly on the quality of the workforce, PAES lobbies for policy investment in young children to develop human capital in the United States. They stand on the shoulders of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who has done considerable research in the “technology of skill formation.” Heckman has demonstrated that money spent on promoting early nurture has a rate of return of 6-10% per annum—returning up to $10 per $1 invested in children aged 0-3—by reducing social costs (educational remediation, welfare, Medicaid, incarceration, public housing, and so on) and by cultivating an individual’s capacity to participate productively and positively in society.
This is Heckman’s pithy expression: Skills beget skills; motivation begets motivation. Early advantages accumulate; so do early disadvantages. Lifelong cognitive and non-cognitive skills (such as perseverance, attentiveness, and motivation) are profoundly influenced by early experiences. It would be difficult to overstate how much a young child’s experiences impact their future social and economic situation. The existing achievement gaps (which could aptly be called the parenting gap) are considerable by age 3, and “impose the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession—one substantially larger than the deep recession the country is currently experiencing,” according to a 2009 McKinsey & Company report.
There is no question that the earliest years of life are critical to human development, and that intervention in the most disadvantaged children yields returns on investment that exceed the average post-war equity rate of return of 5.8%. But the pressing question is this: To what end are we to make this investment and intervention? Is prosperity a worthy end in itself? Is it, for example, a more worthy aim than a just society? Could pursuing prosperity for its own sake undermine justice? Or could the pursuit of justice for its own sake be the most solid foundation of social and economic vitality?
Early education is critical not primarily because of the “technology of skill formation,” but because of the dynamics of character formation. Discipline, perseverance, and integrity, for example, are critical catalysts for learning. In C.S. Lewis’s words, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” Indeed, early education, if not in the service of human virtue and public justice, will only make us more adept in devising our own personal and societal undoing. It will, for example, influence a child’s future decision to become a consumer of the sex trafficking industry through pornography, or to have not only the honour to abstain from consumption, but also the courage, creativity, and tenacity to dismantle its evil networks.
Here I have implicitly assumed that there are such realities as virtue and vice, justice and injustice, and that these are something more than the creation of my mind or the constructs of other human beings. Indeed, every ethical claim is rooted in assumptions about the way things really are, whether or not we are aware of these assumptions. Lesslie Newbigin expresses it thus:
No state [or individual or organization] can be completely secular in the sense that those who exercise power have no beliefs about what is true and no commitment to what they believe to be right. It is the duty of the church to ask what those beliefs and commitments are and to expose them in the light of the gospel.
To make ethical claims and abjure assumptions is to stand on a dock without legs in the Florida Keys while alligators swim hungrily beneath you. It simply can’t be done—or, more accurately, to do so is to invite one’s own imminent demise.
We who believe in the saving and defining work of Jesus Christ are commanded to seek first His Kingdom and righteousness in the public life of our communities and nations—that is to say, to announce and pursue His reign and justice in human affairs, which can have no meaning except in reference to the One who is just, and the justifier of the wicked through faith in Christ. It is tempting to seek a “least common denominator” with those who hold radically different assumptions about the nature and destiny of humanity in order to seek the common good. However, if we abjure our gospel assumptions about what is good, we join those who stand, for a very short time, inches above alligators.
Christians ought to be on the leading edge of early nurture for the sake of virtue and justice in our own homes as well as our churches, communities and schools, and to support prudent advocacy and wise public policy. The most powerful levers are not big, but small (the family); and not fast, but slow (as children grow). They produce returns more valuable than any reflected on a balance sheets. It is our duty and calling to testify that the pursuit of prosperity is a dead end in itself, and to humbly and boldly set forth the good news which imputes virtue to the vicious and transforms individuals and communities. To treat this good news as merely the religious story of Christians, and not the foundation of human virtue and public justice, is a denial of the central Biblical claim that “Jesus is Lord of all.”