How the rich get richer: investing in their young kids

Reunions are one of the nice perks of being a Harvard Business School alumnus. Lectures, parties, sporting events –what’s not to like? A couple years ago I attended a fascinating session at a reunion, jointly taught by a business school professor and a neuroscientist. The subject was early childhood development, and one of their objectives was to persuade their (generally) wealthy and influential audience to support funding of early childhood programs. They presented research demonstrating the importance of the early years in brain development and showed how kids who had good nutrition, parents speaking to them and holding them, reading books to them, etc. did much better. Basically,  the kids from a deprived environment were never going to catch up to the kids from an enriched environment. The professors made the point that the return on investment from early childhood programs –which tend to have low and declining funding– was so much greater than more popular and expensive measures deployed in later life, including prison.

The part I remember the best was their observation that the research was making an impact. But that impact was that well educated, wealthy people (such as their Harvard Business School alumni audience) were applying the findings to their own kids, and actually widening the gap between themselves and everyone else!

A couple things I saw today reminded me of this:

  • A letter to the editor of the Boston Globe by former Stride Rite CEO/chairman Arnold Hiatt making the return on investment argument and noting that state funding of early education and care has been dropping in Massachusetts
  • A policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics about limiting or eliminating “screen time”for kids under 2, which also notes that kids from lower socioeconomic strata watch more TV from an earlier age

I think it would be productive if the presidential campaign included a serious discussion about shifting funding away from old people –e.g., Medicare and Social Security– and towards the youngest in society. I know what side of the debate I’d be on.

October 24, 2011

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