Jerry Diakiw has a terrific idea. If governments are looking for good infrastructure investments, he writes, focus on kids. That's not just a noble sentiment. There's lots of evidence to suggest that it's wise policy:
Our new federal government plans to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure projects. But according to James Heckman, Nobel laureate in the economics of human development, infrastructure spending only sees a rate of return of roughly 1 to 2 per cent — while investing in disadvantaged children before they start school has a proven record of yielding an 8 to 10 per cent rate of return.
Children who participated in two early childhood projects run during the 1960 and 1970s — the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project — have been studied intensively now for 40 years and the results have been both powerful and instructive. The findings show how narrowing the inequality gap and reducing child poverty makes economic sense. Early childhood intervention delivered to disadvantaged kids aged one to four, and their parents, promotes economic efficiencies and reduces lifetime inequalities.
The Abecedarian Project produced a phenomenal 10 per cent rate of return on the initial government investment. Compare that to a standard 5.8 per cent average rate of return on investments in stocks.
That's not to suggest that there aren't roads and bridges to be repaired. In Montreal, where I grew up, huge chunks of concrete have been falling on cars as they passed under overpasses. That's what happens when you neglect regular maintenance.
But while taxes have been lowered, the evidence has been accumulating:
These studies, and more recent ones from other countries, demonstrate that early intervention for kids in disadvantaged homes, focusing on these soft skills, has a direct and positive effect on wages, schooling, teenage pregnancy, smoking, crime and performance on achievement tests. The children who benefit from early intervention are healthier and make better lifestyle choices.
The legacy of neo-liberalism has been a rash of social pathologies. If we build new roads and bridges but are left with the pathologies, we will be no further ahead.