Two of the most fashionable ideas in social policy thinking are coming together — conditional welfare and early childhood intervention. Together they’ll create a new supernanny state that fights crime, prevents teenage pregnancy, lifts employment and leaps rigorous cost-benefit tests in a single bound… or at least that’s the theory.
For years, welfare payments have been conditional on searching for work and showing up to welfare-to-work programs. But over the past decade, politicians have been thinking more laterally. Labor’s Craig Emerson, for example, argues that family payments ought to be conditional on children’s school attendance. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trialling a program that pays parents for attending parent-teacher conferences and children for passing exams (Bloomberg’s trial has philanthropic funding). Increasingly, government money for parents will come with strings attached.
At the same time, policy experts are becoming less convinced about the value of welfare-to-work programs and more convinced of the value of early childhood interventions. The economist and Nobel laureate James Heckman has played a major role in this shift. He argues that while education and training programs for low income adults aren’t effective enough to justify the cost, well designed and well targeted early childhood interventions are. In a recent paper with Dimitriy Masterov he writes that:
… it makes sense to invest in young children from disadvantaged environments. Substantial evidence shows that these children are more likely to commit crime, have out-of-wedlock births and drop out of school. Early interventions that partially remediate the effects of adverse environments can reverse some of the harm of disadvantage and have a high economic return. They benefit not only the children themselves, but also their children, as well as society at large (pdf).
Heckman’s argument is economic. While investing in disadvantaged children might be justified on the grounds of fairness or social justice, Heckman argues that it can be justified on cost-benefit grounds alone. Not only do the children get a larger slice of pie when they grow up, but the pie itself gets bigger (or ‘higher’ as George W would say).
In the United States, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently convened a national summit to talk about the Democrats’ new childhood agenda. Heckman was the keynote speaker and his research set the tone for the event. "We know that these investments in our children today pay off manyfold in later years. It makes good economic sense. It is also the right thing to do," said Pelosi in her opening remarks.
Early childhood intervention is a hot issue in the policy community. And it’s also an issue that the public connects with — particularly when it’s linked to crime prevention. In a UK poll 55% of respondents said that "better parenting" would do most to prevent crime. Not long after, Tony Blair announced a network of parenting experts to "help families who are showing signs of anti-social behaviour." The media immediately dubbed them ‘supernannies.’
The Blair government also announced new programs for parents:
Parenting programmes and classes are highly effective in helping parents manage their children’s behaviour better, leading both to a reduction in bad behaviour and improved family relationships.
Where parents are reluctant to get help, or where they deny that they and their children have problems, more formal steps can be used. Parenting contracts and orders can be imposed to get parents to accept responsibility for their child’s behaviour.
It’s not difficult to see how the separate strands might come together. Fighting crime, getting tough on welfare recipients and helping children learn are all popular measures. The opportunity to bundle them together is just too tempting.
The first step is to make income support payments to parents conditional. The second step is to provide early childhood interventions in disadvantaged areas. The third step is to link the two together so that participation becomes mandatory for income support recipients. Then, for better or worse, the supernanny state will have arrived.