Mentioning disadvantage in an economic boom is sometimes regarded as a faux pas, like asking the host at a fashionable party why she didn’t invite her badly-dressed friends. But given that today’s golden age isn’t glittering for everyone, the right response is to work out how to improve the life chances for the poorest Australians.
The trouble is, the cycle of disadvantage has proven agonisingly hard to break. We know relatively little about patterns of poverty, but we do know that a son whose father is out of work for six months has triple the odds of being long-term unemployed when he grows up. And a boy who witnesses parental violence in childhood is six times as likely to hit his spouse in later life. Correlation isn’t causation, but early experiences seem to matter.
One promising solution is high-impact early childhood intervention programs. In the US, careful economic evaluations - based on randomised trials from the Abecedarian, Perry Preschool, and Early Training Projects - have shown that providing intensive assistance to disadvantaged children and their parents isn’t just morally right - it can be wildly cost-effective too.
These programs admitted children into preschool at an early age (sometimes as young as four months), and focused on developing cognitive, language, and social skills. The target population was extremely disadvantaged. From a young age, their IQ scores were below the US average. In the Perry Preschool program, two-thirds of girls in the control group had fallen pregnant in their teens, while more than half the boys had been arrested.
When researchers followed both the treatment and control groups, they found that those who received early childhood interventions were doing better on most measures than those in the control group. The programs cost A$15,000-50,000 per child, yet they easily paid for themselves in reduced welfare spending, higher tax revenues, and less crime.
Set against other anti-poverty programs, early childhood interventions look even better. Put to the test, many programs designed to help low-income adults have only minimal results. Job training programs for unskilled workers are rarely very effective. Prison education programs often fail to prevent recidivism. A steady diet of welfare payments does make people less poor, but has its own negative consequences. Until we find better solutions, it would be rash to defund these other programs. But when a promising solution for breaking the poverty cycle comes along, it’s time to grab it with both hands.
You would think that the lessons from the United States’ early childhood intervention programs were obvious: high-impact programs are effective, and randomised trials are the best way to work out whether a program makes a difference. Yet Australian policymakers act like they read the headline, but skipped the story. They have largely eschewed targeted, high-impact interventions in favour of universal, low-impact programs. Offering more publicly provided childcare to the middle class may have a high electoral impact, but it is not going to transform the life chances of the poorest.
So far as evaluations are concerned, a handful of randomised trials of small early intervention programs have been run by researchers at the University of Queensland. But for the most part, Australian early childhood programs are not rigorously evaluated in this way. Ironically, the effect of this will be to ensure that the next generation of early childhood researchers will be as disadvantaged by lack of evidence as we are today.
Unlike the United States, where Struggle Street and Main Street intersect in the CBD, low-income Australians tend to live in regional areas, or on the outskirts of cities. Clontarf and Campsie may both be Sydney suburbs, but it’s a fair bet that most residents of the former have never visited the latter. While the media spotlight has lately highlighted run-down Indigenous communities, anyone who has walked through some of the rougher housing estates on our urban fringes knows that you don’t have to be Indigenous to be part of the underclass.
The fact that you can’t see disadvantage from the city shouldn’t blind us to action. If equality of opportunity means anything, doesn’t it mean that governments should allocate more money to poor children than rich ones? Unlike “tax and churn” programs like the Baby Bonus, early childhood intervention allocates resources where they are needed the most. Devoting a few extra dollars to early childhood intervention programs today sure beats spending it on jails tomorrow.
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