Lawrence Aber

Children, Political Power and Poverty

VTR Date: June 22, 2010

GUEST: Dr. Lawrence J. Aber


GUEST: Dr. Lawrence J. Aber
AIR DATE: 05/08/10

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and today’s guest has joined me here several times before. The first, shortly after that infamous terrorist killing day, 9/11.

Now Professor of Applied Psychology and Public Policy at New York University, Dr. Lawrence Aber was associated then with Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty and its Institute for Child and Family Policy.

My guest’s concern was then and remains now how best we can protect our nation’s children from the trauma of terrorism, the trauma of war itself as an instrument of national policy, of exposure to violence of any kind, the trauma of poverty and hunger, certainly of inadequate education … of whatever-have-you that’s clearly toxic and that impacts negatively upon our young and particularly our less protected poorer kids, and then upon the adults they become.

Indeed, just a couple of years ago an Open Mind conversation with Larry Aber built upon a quite provocative lead piece he had written for an American Prospect Special Report titled: “Life Chances: The Case For Early Investment In Our Kids”.

The point he made so compellingly then was that we must change the climate of early childhood in America, and that some national political leader must step up to make the case – scientific as well as philosophical – for adequate, equitable public and private investments in early childhood.

Clearly, my guest believes that now the scientific research data have been gathered to warrant such investments.

And I believe he believes that Barack Obama is the national political leader who can and shall provide the necessary leadership to do what must be done, even though — as Professor Aber has written recently –“Children can’t vote … And households with children are a declining proportion of all American households…two facts [that] help explain the historical political weakness of the children’s movement [and] the disproportionately small share of federal spending devoted to children, [as well as] the decline in federal investments in children over most of the last decade…[even though] children are 100% of our nation’s future”.

All this from an advance draft I’ve just read of a paper by Professor Aber and a colleague that will be delivered a few days after we record this program. They’ll deliver it at a Washington conference on what’s next in matters relating to poverty after the Obama stimulus program.

And I, of course, have no hesitation in asking my guest both what it is he wants to happen next, and what he thinks will really happen. Larry, is there a difference between the two?

ABER: Absolutely, Richard. You’re certainly right that compared to most of the eight years between 2000 and 2008 I believe there is political leadership at the highest levels in Washington that are more prepared to face the facts about our nation’s kids and act on them.

So … but this President is coming in to the end of his first year in office facing so many huge obstacles. And, candidly, the distance between what he wanted to do and what he’s done so far is bigger than many of us would have hoped.

HEFFNER: And you think from this point on in terms of children and poverty and education?

ABER: I, I think that … well, I just described … my first thing was how the glass is half empty. The glass is half full, too.

The biggest, single domestic policy initiative, prior to health care reform in the first year of the Obama Administration was the stimulus bill.

And, as your viewers know, the stimulus bill put out about $787 billion dollars to stimulate the economy in various ways. The paper that you referred to, my colleague and I show that in that Bill that children got a higher proportion of attention in that stimulus bill than they do in the regular domestic budget.

The total proportion of the domestic budget that goes to children, normally is about 10% a year. And in the stimulus bill about 18% of the, of the money went toward children.

So that’s a, a very significant improvement over kind of baseline, over the last several decades. So, so that’s good.

But the stimulus bill was meant to help America get back on its feet in the face of the great recession. It was … it is by design temporary and so many of the things that the Obama Administration did in the stimulus bill really required to be built in to, to regular permanent policy, not a one or a two year exceptional policy response.

HEFFNER: What’s going to happen when those funds are gone?

ABER: Well, the … as we’re sitting here on a cold January afternoon in New York … you, you know that there’s lots of debate within the nation and within the Democratic Party about whether a second stimulus bill is needed and could be passed.

I, I believe that a second, second form of stimulus bill is more than merited. It’s merited both to consolidate the progress that we’ve made under the first stimulus bill and it’s necessary as a transition to a form of the Federal budget that in this particular case does what we need for kids. And, and there’s big gaps between what’s been being done and what needs to be done.

HEFFNER: You’re satisfied, I gather that we know now, we have the fact based evidence or the evidence based ideas on which to act for children.

ABER: I, I am satisfied that there is enough knowledge out there to make very smart choices about wise investments in our kids that are likely to return high payoff.

Does that … I’m, I’m a part time policy wonk, as you know, but I’m a full time scientist. So I’m, I don’t believe that our knowledge creation agenda should ever stop. And in the same paper you’re citing, I, I lay out the case for a much more aggressive and ambitious Federal R&D effort to continue to improve ways we understand how to, how to increase the well-being of low income children and their families.

But we could stop research today and for years continue to fill in the gap between what we know today and what we’re actually doing.

I’ll just give one example. Right now we spend 60% to 80% of Federal … of public expenditures on kids, on K to 12 education. And that means that there are two age periods in life. Before children enter public school and after children leave publicly supported secondary school, where the public investments in kids go down dramatically.

So, if we spend $4,000 a year … public investments in young children … that, that’s a high estimate. We spend on average $10,000 a year for public education, for kids K to 12.

Well, we also know that the first three to four years of life are, at least as important and many people would argue are more important in determining future life chances than the years from K to 12.

Does it make sense to spend 40% of annual expenditures, on average, during the kids most formative years compared to the years of K to 12 education.

K to 12 education, the amount we invest in it is not too little … I mean it’s not too much … but it’s historically anachronistic that we are spending that much at that period of life rather than the first three or four years of life.

HEFFNER: Okay, you’ve identified this disparity …

ABER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: … now explain it.

ABER: Well, historically the American economy … when public education began being funded, it was funded for two purposes.

The first is, as we were making a transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy, children weren’t needed for labor. They were …

HEFFNER: Any more.

ABER: Any more … they … and we wanted, as a nation to prepare them for the kinds of manufacturing and other kinds of jobs our economy was growing. We wanted to teach them to read and write. That’s purpose number one.

And we wanted to introduce them to citizenship. That’s purpose number two. People thought that you could and should start doing that at about age six and therefore, we structured public education to begin at about age six.

We now know that children learn in utero … learn rapidly throughout the first year of life and that by the time children are three, a child in a middle class or an upper income family has three times the working vocabulary as a child in a poor family.

Three times as many words.

Then they go into pre-school and you and I know … just rashly … if a child goes into pre-school knowing three times as many words as another child … that’s an unequal start at the school house door.

So it is in … of great public interest what we do in the first three years of life. Now you add to that the fact that we invest least at the period of time when low income families are the least prepared to invest in their own children.

So public education has an equalizing effect on children’s chances in America. But we don’t have that in the first three years of life. It puts the children of low income parents at a, at a very conspicuous disadvantage.

HEFFNER: Larry, some weeks ago Joan Ganz Cooney … who began Sesame Street all those many years ago celebrated the 40th anniversary here with us.

What happened to the knowledge we were developing and there was scientific knowledge being developed … back in those years … a half century ago, we were beginning to be focused …

ABER: Yes.

HEFFNER: … on that.

ABER: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Now you’re doing it again and you’re satisfied that we know enough …

ABER: …. We know enough to make wise investments …

HEFFNER: … we’re just not doing enough.

ABER: … we know enough to make wise investments, that’s right. Well, the, the relationship between what we know and what we act upon is, I mean … (laughter) has bedeviled philosophers for millennia …

The … epistemology ethics gap and there … I think there’s a difference between cool pure knowledge and actionable knowledge.

We knew that children were falling behind three decades, four decades ago. We had beginning ideas about how to close that gap, with things like Head Start. But they were … in historical context … educated guesses. And our first attempts to create interventions were crude. They were well meaning, they had some good ideas and some bad ideas.

But we neither really understood the deep processes that influences children’s early nor were we good at the kind of engineering aspects of creating programs and experiences and structures that could faithfully and in a high quality way provide children with the nutrients, the experiential nutrients that they need to, to thrive.

And all those things have changed. The knowledge of the basic process has gotten deeper, as it’s gotten deeper, our technology, our engineering expertise, social engineering expertise … that “dirty” word has, has improved.

And we, we now can identify what are the dimensions of high quality early childhood programs? What dimensions need to be there for a child who is behind in language development; what dimensions need to be there for a child who has behavioral difficulties? And the capacity to create effective early morning learning and development experiences is greater.

What isn’t greater yet is the resources and holding public officials accountable for improving conditions for young kids. Like we hold them accountable for kids K to 12.

HEFFNER: That’s interesting. Is that because from K to 12 society is there?

ABER: Yes.

HEFFNER: Government is there?

ABER: Yes. Yeah. We … there are local education authorities, school superintendents and principals, public officials whose responsibility is to run a K to 12 system.

The early childhood system isn’t a system. We have child care, a little bit of Head Start, a little bit of early Head Start, a few early intervention programs. It’s very decentralized, very variable … there is no universal platform for children in the first three years of life with the exception of the health care system, which is overburdened and has a hard time doing it all.

HEFFNER: Has the Obama Administration in this first year demonstrated its understanding of the dilemma that you just described?

ABER: It has … it has demonstrated its understanding in the, in the following ways … it has made a commitment to increasing funding to early Head Start. It has made a commitment to helping states develop what are called home visiting programs for new parents and their, and their infants.

These are both evidence based approaches to improve children’s early development. They’ve appointed an Assistant Secretary level person who’s a liaison across all the Federal Departments to pull together the panoply of programs and approaches that I was talking about to come up with a coordinated vision.

These are all improvements. What they have done though is only invest a fraction of what’s going to be required to achieve what I call in that paper “developmental equity”.

How are we going to move, as a nation, from spending less than $4,000 a year on young kids to at, at least the equivalent of what we spend for kids K to 12, about $10,000 a year.

My premise is that until we adequately capitalize the first three years of life we are going to be boxed into this splintered, fragmented low quality approach to doing right by the youngest kids. And that’s just flat out irrational.

HEFFNER: How come the church understood what you’re saying … has understood it for centuries and centuries and centuries.

ABER: The church?

HEFFNER: The church itself had said “Give me those children until they’re age … whatever …

ABER: Yeah … ahmm … well, that’s beyond my pay grade, Richard …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

ABER: … I, I was raised a Roman Catholic ….

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

ABER: … in an all Catholic schools until I want to university and I, I do believe … and I’m not sure this is what you were getting at … but I do believe there is a moral dimension to this. It, it, it is not just pragmatics and economics.

I believe it is in our enlightened self-interest as a nation to invest equitably and effectively in the first three years of life.

As a matter of fact, if you look at the returns on investment in education, they are more stable and higher on average than investments in almost any other sector in the last 30 or 40 years. We get about 10% on the dollar per year in good investments in education, both individually and nationally.

But it isn’t all practical, it isn’t all economic. In the end, these are little creatures who have lives of their own and if their future life trajectories are affected by how we treat them now, and an enlightened self-interest approach is not going to be adequate.

I, I believe that children have a special moral and practical call on our government’s attention … for the reasons you described, they can’t vote themselves and they are 100% of our nation’s future.

HEFFNER: I like that phrase. It’s yours, I like it.

ABER: Well, it … but it’s true, I mean they are, they are a declining proportion of households …households with children, especially young children are a declining proportion of our national households. And, and in way that marginalizes them politically.


ABER: But, nonetheless, we have no future without them and they are a very precious commodity.

HEFFNER: And your bet?

ABER: My bet is that, that the next couple of years are going to be tough. I don’t believe that children will fare as well in the next couple budgets as we would like because of the enormous political and fiscal challenges facing our nation right now.

But I believe they’ll fare better than they would have under previous conditions. And more importantly, I think we can … I think now is the time to set, as a national goal, really preparing to invest not just in the K to 12 years, but in the first three years of life and in the years between leaving secondary school and achieving young adult status, about as much as we invest in the K to 12 years.

If we can put ourselves on that path … and if it takes 10 or 20 years, that’s all right. The one analogy is the interstate transportation system … a century ago we knew we had to build highways all over the country to help the nation prosper. We set goals, we drew the lines and it was a series of Administrations that made the investments that it took to develop the interstate transportation system. That’s the kind of big picture look we need right now.

We, we need to say we’re going to invest in kids from birth to early adulthood. We’re going to make the investments over time, we’re going to build a system that adequate to our future.

HEFFNER: Are you emphasizing that because the moral issue isn’t going to carry?

ABER: I’m emphasizing … ah … I’m emphasizing that because I think that if advocates who are strident about immediate investments and then turn politicians who are prepared to solve things over a longer term basis into the enemy is not the path to success.

So I, I … unfortunately, I think the child advocacy community has too often been strident and insistent on immediate action … (cough) … and when immediate action isn’t forthcoming, people who could be with them to create a ten year plan become their short term enemies. And I don’t believe that’s the way to go.

HEFFNER: Have you run into that? Ahhh, in, in the work that you’ve been doing?

ABER: Yes.

HEFFNER: I assume that you weren’t …

ABER: Yes … oh, absolutely …

HEFFNER: … being hypothetical.

ABER: No, absolutely. And … but it’s, you know, …

HEFFNER: (Laugh) What are you going to say, Larry? Let me ask you a question, take you off the hook for a minute.

What about other peoples? What about other people in developed countries … our peers. What are their approaches to this and what do they do?

ABER: Well … it’s a great question. And it, it’s a sign that we’re in the early 21st century that your viewers might not even be interested in it. Thirty, forty years ago, any time people mentioned how other developing … developed nations treated their kids, it was a yawn and a ho-hum … or “those are Scandinavians, they’re Socialists …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

ABER: … and they’re not like us.” So, but we now know a lot from comparative policy research. And I’ll say three things.

One is an elite table of the 25 richest nations in the world. America comes out about 22nd or 23rd from the top, one or two from the bottom in the well-being of our kids. So even though we are the richest nation in the world, among the top 25 nations, we are coming in near the bottom in how, how our children are doing.

HEFFNER: And I’ll bet we don’t know that.

ABER: We don’t know that. UNICEF has advertised this quite broadly and, but … our children are poorer and sicker and, and more unhappy and more worried than they need to be.

HEFFNER: And less well educated.

ABER: And less well educated. The second is that at least one of the ways other countries deal with this is not accepting the idea that if you have to … if you want excellence in your education and your public policy system, you have to trade off equity.

There’s an American belief that excellence only comes with unequal treatment. And that if you provide equal treatment, that that’s the path to lower performance and lower quality.

There’s now very strong evidence that you can devise strategies that simultaneously pursue the goal of excellence and equity. And, and they have really created in their education systems ways of pursuing excellence and equity at the same time.

And the third thing I’d say is one of the things that is most glaringly different about us and most of the other 25 countries is how high our child poverty rates are.

Just the thing we were beginning to talk about at the beginning of the conversation. Eighteen percent of America’s kids live in, in families with incomes below the poverty line, which is in the low $20 thousands right now.

That’s higher than most of these other nations. How do the other nations solve that? They solve it with a thing called a child or family allowance. Other governments recognize the cost of raising children. And subsidize families for the cost of raising children. That single policy difference explains most of the difference between our child poverty rates and other nations child poverty rates. And in turn explains a big part of the difference between our children’s well-being and other nations’ well-being.

HEFFNER: We once spoke about that. I don’t mean you and I at this table, but as a nation, we were once much more involved in that understanding. Weren’t we?

ABER: I think that in the, in the sixties there was a sense of that. And it’s … and I think it’s coming back. I, I think that the excess on Wall Street, the increasing understanding that our health care system is not the same system for all Americans and there’s vast inequities in that. I believe that America is becoming concerned again with inequality, not just lack of opportunity.

HEFFNER: I’m glad that you’re talking to people who feel that way. I’m not talking to people feel that way. Yes, they read it, they hear it. But I don’t know that they really give a damn.

ABER: The, the polling data that I’ve seen suggests that there is a growing … awareness of this again. Whether it’s going to be adequate to the task only, only the Lord knows.

HEFFNER: And it is on a moral basis that you’re talking about this, not, not …

ABER: Well, it’s both actually. There’s actually fascinating research that over … take a really hard indicator of human well being … life expectancy.

If you look across all the nations of the world and you look across multiple historical epics … life expectancy goes up with average per capita GDP in a country or in a community from zero GDP per person a year to $5,000 GDP, gross domestic product, per person per year.

So life expectancy is strongly improved by increase in absolute income in the bottom range. Once you reach about $5,000 a year, per person, it’s most strongly influenced not by the absolute level of economic resources, but by inequality … by the difference between the person who has the most and the least.

Our public health … wealthy people are less well in a society that is more unequal than equally wealthy people in a society that’s more equal. That’s very strong public health information right there.

HEFFNER: Larry, we’ve reached the end of our time. But you ought to bottle that information. And sell it.

ABER: Ah, I’m afraid if I do, it will wind up on some abandoned shore.

HEFFNER: Larry Aber, thank you very much for joining me …

ABER: Thank you, Richard, it’s always a pleasure.

HEFFNER: … today. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.