The Importance of an Early Childhood Focus 2

Gøsta Esping-Andersen
(Universitat Pompeu Fabra)

La importància de les fases més primerenques de la infància per a les oportunitats de vida posteriors reuneix un gran consens. La inversió en la primera infància és una política rentable, especialment els programes de desenvolupament i estimulació cognitiva que tenen un impacte positiu pronunciat sobre el rendiment escolar i altres resultats.

Research on inter-generational social mobility focus very much on the role of education, but it rarely takes into account factors related to the earliest years of childhood. And yet, there is a growing consensus in the social sciences that conditions in the earliest phases of childhood are particularly important for subsequent life chances. It is well-established that ages 0-6 are decisive for children’s cognitive skills, sense of security, and motivation to learn (Danziger and Waldfogel, 2000, Duncan and Brooks-Gunn, 1997; Waldfogel, 2006). Substantial differences in children’s cognitive abilities by parents’ socio-economic status emerge at early ages and are then carried over to subsequent achievements in education and earnings (e.g. Cunha and Heckman, 2007). James Heckman’s work has been particularly influential in demonstrating that investing in early childhood is a cost-effective policy, with early childhood development programmes having a pronounced positive impact on school achievement and other outcomes that outweigh the costs by a large margin.

But which are the early childhood conditions that matter most? There is little doubt that family income, and poverty in particular, have strong effects on later outcomes such as educational attainment and earnings. Family ‘culture’ also seems important in influencing parenting behavior and child stimulation — such as prioritizing reading over TV (de Graaf et al, 2000; Esping-Andersen, 2007). This is captured in Heckman’s ‘learning-begets-learning’ model: kids who start well subsequently learn more easily; kids with a poor start are likely to fall ever more behind (Carneiro and Heckman, 2003). The common conclusion that differences in the design of education systems seem to matter only marginally for social mobility may reflect the importance of circumstances in the ages prior to compulsory schooling.

This has major implications for the role of social institutions in intergenerational mobility (IGM). The extent and intensity of child poverty varies substantially across industrialized countries, and this may be related to observed variations in later outcomes including education and earnings as well as social problems such as truancy, school drop-out and criminality (cf. Duncan et al, 1998, McCulloch and Joshi, 2002).

The logic is straightforward. Inequality within the parental generation implies greater gaps in those family resources that can be invested in the life chances of its offspring (Bjorklund and Jantti, 2009). Social policy can, both directly (via income transfers) and indirectly (by supporting maternal employment) help minimize the incidence and the duration of family poverty. The role of maternal earnings may be especially important for lone mother families. My own estimates show that child poverty rates are typically 4-5 times lower when the mother works, be it in one- or two-parent households (Esping-Andersen, 2016). Targeting intensive health, nutrition and other supports to particularly deprived families can be readily justified within the same frame from an IGM perspective as well as for its own sake.

We should also keep in mind that it is during the earliest years that children are most privatized and rely primarily on family inputs. The time that parents dedicate to their children, as well as the kind of dedication they bring to bear, varies hugely across families (Bianchi et al, 2006). And there is considerable evidence that nurturing patterns are polarizing (McLanahan, 2004; Esping-Andersen, 2016). While it is difficult to imagine how policies might alter parenting behavior, inequalities in families’ learning culture can be neutralized, or at least diminished, if institutions ensure that childhood stimulation is more homogenous across all children. Any first grade teacher will readily identify the children who attended (good quality) child care and kindergarten institutions.

All this suggests that welfare states that furnish comprehensive, high-quality preschool care are also likely to produce a homogenizing effect in terms of children’s school preparedness. Indeed, the core evidence that underpins Heckman’s work comes from early intervention programs in the US. Using cross-national comparisons, Esping- Andersen (2016) finds some indirect support for the thesis, showing a significant decline in social inheritance effects (focusing on children from low educated parents) for the Nordic countries (but not elsewhere) within the child cohorts that first came to benefit from universal, high-quality child care.

Of course, these very same cohorts also benefited from the largesse of the family allowance system and, more generally, from very low child poverty, which once again makes the precise welfare state effects difficult to disentangle. Schutz et al (2005) in their cross-sectional comparison across countries report an inverted U-shaped relationship between family background effect and preschool enrolment, which suggests that pre-school programs reduce the extent to which family background shapes life-chances. OECD (2013) concludes that good quality care in early childhood, pre-school and also the school years, are essential tools for promoting intergenerational mobility.

While Cunha and Heckman (2009) stress the value of early investments, they acknowledge that the early years are far from being determinant of adult outcomes. As Doyle et al (2007) argue, the economic case for early investment does not preclude later investments but rather directs attention to dynamic complementarities. A further example of policy relevant choices and complementarities is provided by recent research on the relative importance of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ effects on educational attainment (Erikson and Jonsson, 1996, Jackson et al 2007).

Primary effects are all those, whether of a genetic or socio-cultural kind, that are expressed via the association between children’s class backgrounds and their levels of academic performance. Secondary effects are those that are the consequences of the educational choices that children from differing class background make, within the range that their performance allows. As Jackson et al (2007) argue, a major policy issue is how to help rectify the resource and informational constraints within families that, in turn, affect the educational choices of those from less advantaged backgrounds.

And what does the evidence tell us? As mentioned en passant, Heckman’s estimates of the cost effectiveness of early child care suggest that for every dollar spent we get a 12 dollar return. Here the returns are measured in terms of health, educational attainment, and also lower criminality. But we should remember that Heckman’s research focuses on extremely disadvantaged children. In a comparative study of Denmark (the world’s leading nation in terms of high quality universal care) and the U.S, we estimated the effects of early care on later cognitive abilities (at age 11) across all children. We found a clear redistributive effect.

The children from the bottom quintile benefited hugely while for those from the middle and top there were really no significant abilities improvements (Esping-Andersen, 2011). And in a much broader nation comparison, Dammrich and Esping-Andersen (2016) conclude similarly that the equalizing effect (in terms of cognitive skills) is substantial but only under a set of key conditions: one, that the pre-school system is of high pedagogical quality and, two, that enrolment is as universal as possible. Universalism is a key feature since this offers the single best assurance that children from less privileged backgrounds participate.


Bianchi, S, Robinson, J and Milkie, M 2006 Changing Rhythms of American Family Life. New York: Russell Sage

Björklund, A and Jantti, M 2009 ‘Intergenerational income mobility and the role of family background’. Pp. 491-521 in W. Salverda, B. Nolan and T. Smeeding, eds. Handbook of Economic Inequality. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Carneiro, Pedro and James Heckman. 2003. ‘Human capital policy.’ in James Heckman and Alan Krueger, eds. Inequality in America. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Cunha, Flavio and James Heckman. 2007. “The Technology of Skill Formation.” American Economic Review 97 (2): 31-47.

Dämmrich, J and Esping-Andersen, G 2016 ‘Pre-school and reading competencies. A cross-national analysis’. Paper prepared for the EDUlife project, European University Institute.

Danziger, Sheldon and Jane Waldfogel. 2000. Securing the Future: Investing in. Children from Birth to College. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

De Graaf, Nan Dirk, Paul de Graaf and G. Kraaykamp. 2000. “Parental cultural capital and educational attainment in the Netherlands: a refinement of the cultural capital perspective.” Sociology of Education 73: 92–111.

Doyle, Orla, Colm Harmon, James Heckman and Richard Tremblay. 2007. “Early Childhood Intervention: Rationale, Timing and Efficacy.” Geary Institute, WP/5/2007, Dublin: UCD.

Duncan, Greg and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, eds. 1997. Consequences of Growing Up Poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Duncan, Greg, Wei-Jun Yeung, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and James Smith. 1998. “How Much Does Childhood Poverty Affect the Life Chances of Children?” American Sociological Review 63 (3): 406–23.

Erikson, R. and Jonsson, J. 1996. Can Education be Equalized? The Swedish Case in Comparative Perspective. Boulder, Col: Westview Press.

Esping-Andersen, Gosta. 2007. “Sociological Explanations of Changing Income Distributions.” American Behavioural Scientist 50 (5): 639-58.

Esping-Andersen, G 2016 The Great Rebound. Family Dynamics in the 21st Century. Stockholm: SNS

Esping-Andersen, G, I. Garfinkel, W Jui Han, K. Magnuson, S. Wagner and J. Waldfogel  2011 ‘Child care and school performance in Denmark and the United States’. Children and Youth Services Review, 34: 576-89

Jackson, Michelle, Robert Erikson, John Goldthorpe and Meir Yaish. 2007. “Primary and secondary effects in class differentials in educational attainment: the transition to A-level courses in England and Wales.” Acta Sociologica 50(3): 11–229.

McCulloch, Andrew and Heather Joshi. 2002. “Child Development and Family Resources: an exploration of evidence from the second generation of the 1958 Birth Cohort.‟ Journal of Population Economics 15 (2): 283-304.

McLanahan, S 2004 ‘Diverging destinies: how children fare under the 2nd demographic transition’. Demography, 41:607-27 OECD, 2013. Starting Strong. Volumes I-III. Paris: OECD

Schütz, Gabriela, Heinrich Ursprung and Ludiger Woessmann. 2005. “Education Policy and Equality of Opportunity”, IZA Discussion Paper, n. 1906, Bonn: Institute for the Study of Labor.

Waldfogel, J 2006 What Children Need. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press



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