On the Poverty Conference: Part I

This weekend I flew out to Notre Dame as a guest of professors Gladden Pappin and O. Carter Snead for the 15th annual fall conference hosted by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, entitled “Your Light Will Rise in Darkness: Responding to the Cry of the Poor.” The program, which spanned three days, gave attendees a unique opportunity to hear about the breadth of the topic, which was chosen in response to Pope Francis’ pontificate. Undergraduate and graduate students alike had opportunities to present submitted papers and were joined by many distinguished guests including Alasdair MacIntyre and Jim Heckman, a Nobel Laureate in Economics. In a series of three posts, I’d like to offer in the form of a summary some of the arguments made at Notre Dame this weekend and any commentary I may have as well.

To begin, in Thursday night’s Josef Pieper Keynote lecture, Jim Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and Nobel Laureate from 2000, kicked off the conference with a lecture called “Predistribution: A Strategy for Promoting Flourishing Lives.” He was introduced to the audience as a man so accomplished that he had no peer in economics, advising on some 64 theses in his tenure at U Chicago, and the audience was certainly not disappointed by his presentation, which could have lasted an additional hour if he’d been given the time. I will attempt to summarize his interdisciplinary arguments here that laid the foundation for the rest of the weekend.

To illustrate the scene of poverty in America, Heckman began with a series of graphs to quantify the disparity and inequality present in America. The measures of poverty he chose included the top 1% graph, the “Gatsby” Curve of social mobility stagnation and the intergenerational mobility and income coefficient, the disparity in secondary degree completion based on income bracket, and the number of children under six years old growing up in poverty as a function of time. Each graph served to demonstrate the systemic and structural injustice that is present in American institutions today. Traditionally, Heckman argued, we approach the poverty question as we are instructed in Deuteronomy 15:11, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land'” (NRSV). And yet, this response to the poor opens up the tradeoff question between equity and efficiency: Do we help our neighbor in need or give efficiently to help the most people with our money?

Heckman offered predistribution—whose definition will become apparent through the remainder of this summary—as a way to diminish the trade-off between equity and efficiency. He argued that skills rather than material resources are the major determinants of inequality. Skills create agency and give us the capability to take actions to build our own lives. In our modern view of poverty, which overestimates the material, we fail to address the true root of inequality. Heckman made a series of points to build up an understanding of this problem and means of solving it.

First, quoting Emerson, he asserted, “Character is more important than intellect.” The focus of schools has been disproportionately focused on measures of cognition and intelligence, and it woefully fails to engender social and emotional skills that Heckman argued are necessary to the understanding of the human person and the means of living a flourishing life. Heckman demonstrated that non-cognitive skills, or character studies, are more useful predictors of eventual success. One study that looks at the effects of self control demonstrates that low levels of self control in students are highly correlative with substance abuse, lower income, lower parenting skills, unplanned pregnancies, and an inability to plan for the future. Heckman expounded further about the unique predictive value of non-cognitive skills in determining life outcomes as he described a subpopulation of students, GED takers. Heckman showed that the bell curve that describes cognitive ability in high school dropouts who take the GED and the bell curve of high school graduates’ IQs are nearly identical. However, if instead a measure of non-cognitive skills is taken, there is a substantial shift in the bell curve that indicates that drop-out-GED-takers perform similarly to high school dropouts, not the high school graduates.

Moreover, these skill gaps in character are created in the formative years of childhood between three and five years old, and are sustained throughout childhood into adulthood. In other words, the level of non-cognitive skills that a person will ever likely have is determined largely in childhood. And yet genetics only tells part of the story. The capabilities that matter for success later in life, Heckman argued, are not genetically inherited traits but acquired skills. We have to understand our ability to uniquely influence the formation of these acquired skills in our children. Heckman presented a series of twin studies to illustrate the non-deterministic nature of genes by demonstrating that rather than the genes themselves, it is the epigenetic effects of DNA methylation and histone acetylation (sorry non-science folks) that influence gene expression, which is actually responsible for phenotypic and behavioral outcomes in a child. These effects in turn are controlled by the physical relationship between parents and children.

Because of this rare window of formation and the environmental factors that influence gene expression, family nurturance plays a crucial role in the formation of a child’s social and emotional skills. Heckman and his colleagues looked at the vocabulary of children at the age of three in various types of homes and compared their proficiency to the number of words and the quality of words that were spoken to the child on average at home. They saw that on average, children in welfare homes heard about 600 words per hour, with 5 affirmations and 11 prohibitions. On the contrary, in professional homes, 5,000 words were spoken per hour, 32 of them being affirmations and only 5 prohibitions. In this case and others we see that poverty is not a genetic condition. We have to reintroduce this idea in public discourse that family nurturance is a relevant factor in the eventual success of a child and can also be difficult or impossible to compensate for later in life.

Furthermore, knowing that there are critical and sensitive periods in the formation of skills, we can implement interventions that will most benefit a child. A common fallacy that was heard after the implementation of Head Start, the program started by President Johnson to push kids into Perry Preschools, was that these programs did not significantly improve the IQs or the test scores of the students enrolled. However, the problem was not the program but rather its measurement of success. By only looking at cognitive skills, evaluators failed to see the long-term effects of putting students in mentor and teacher relationships at early ages, which taught them social and emotional skills. Longitudinal studies show that these students in Head Start had significantly lower smoker and drug use rates and higher levels of general health because they had been introduced to concepts like self control and discipline in school. In this we see the primary avenue of improving quality of life through investment in personality and cognitive skills.

At the present, Heckman argued, there is a crucial ingredient missing from the public discussion about inequality and poverty, and that is the parent/child, teacher/child, or mentor/child scaffolding that makes the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful intervention. The traditional approach to solving large social problems is fragmented and involves remedying problems without focusing on the central causes. Heckman argued instead for an investment in preventative interventions, rather than remediation.

Child poverty is not all about the money. It is about parenting, love, and engagement with the child. Children growing up in rough, dangerous neighborhoods often do grow up to live middle class lives and better. The cycle of poverty is perpetuated not by material poverty but by a poverty of spirit or love. Heckman argued that the real solution to poverty must involve interventions that promote the dignity and agency of human beings by fostering skills and habits in children.

The true measure of disadvantage is in the level of parenting. The definition of predistribution should now make sense: Our dollars are best spent creating agency and opportunity for a child in the early years. I was much reminded of my grandfather, who emigrated from Italy in the ’40s and has worked hard his whole life to provide for his family. Now he spends generously on his grandchildren, always telling us that some thousand-dollar inheritance for us when he’s gone will mean nothing compared to what he’s able to contribute to our lives now as we grow up. I am grateful every day for the investment my parents and grandparents have made in me, and I think that reshaping our approach to the nature of true poverty in America, being that of the family, will help to answer many of the moral dilemmas and questions that extend far beyond material need.