In his book When, Dan Pink writes about the importance of getting a good start. Timing is incredibly important in our lives, and getting a good start can make a huge difference down the road in terms of the outcomes we want to see (or avoid). I wrote about the importance of getting a good start in a career and matching ones skills with a position that values and rewards those skills, but Pink also addresses the importance of getting a good start in life as a baby. Specifically, Pink writes about programs that send nurses into homes to help low income and often low education families and mothers with caring for newborn children. The policies make a huge difference in getting little ones off to a good start.
“Nurse visits reduce infant mortality rates, limit behavior and attention problems, and minimize families’ reliance on food stamps and other social welfare programs. They’ve also boosted children’s health and learning, improved breast-feeding and vaccination rates, and increased the chances mothers will seek and keep paid work.”
Programs to help young children are expensive up-front, but have a huge amount of benefit down the road. There is a lot of inequity in our society, and while we like to believe that the outcomes we see are purely the results of our own hard work and effort, that isn’t always the case. Having a caring home with enough nutritious food and positive role models makes a big difference in our early development. Getting a good start is key for building good behaviors and becoming successful down the road. The important piece from Pink’s emphasis with this program, is the social nature of the program and how bringing mothers and families that might otherwise be economically and socially isolated into society helps them ensure their kids get a good start.
Pink continues, “Instead of forcing vulnerable people to fend for themselves, everyone does better by starting together.” I’ve written about the importance of social groups for our happiness, and here Pink shows that more social connection and helping create social bonds of support for early mothers leads to the positive outcomes we want to see for young children. There are policies we can put in place that would reward these types of social connections and make them more available, and the studies that Pink highlights suggest that the benefits of those programs would be huge for the children who get a better start in life, and would also flow to the rest of society. The programs might not be obvious at first, and the beneficiaries (in terms of the parents of the young children) might not seem deserving at first, but it is worth remembering that the people who will benefit in the long run includes all of us, and not just those initial families and children who receive the good start.
I studied political science for a masters and focused generally on public health. A big challenge in both areas is that the people who end up participating in our studies or who are the targets of our interventions are often different in one way or another from the general population, and that makes it hard to tell whether our study or intervention was meaningful. We might see a result and want to attribute it to a specific thing happening in society or that we introduced to a group, but it could just be that the people observed already had some particular quality that led to the outcome we saw. Our theory and our intervention may have just been a small thing on the side that didn’t really do what it looks like it did.
Another challenge in both areas is accomplishing our goals without being able to directly address our goals. We may want to do something like prevent drug overdose deaths, but public opinion won’t support safe injection sites, legal drug use, or free needles for drug addicts. We can work toward our goals, but we often have to do them in an oblique manner that purports to address one thing, while in the background really addressing another thing.
These experiences from my educational background come to mind when I think about the following quote from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain. Their example is about education, but it relates to what I discussed above because it shows how our current education system seems to be doing one thing, but really accomplishes another goal in an indirect way. It does so by taking qualities that people already have, and purporting to provide an intervention to enhance those qualities, but runs into the same selection bias I mentioned in my opening paragraph.
“Educated workers are generally better workers, but not necessarily because school made them better. Instead, a lot of the value of education lies in giving students a chance to advertise the attractive qualities they already have.”
Education can do a lot of things for us, but pin pointing exactly what it does is tricky because the people attracted to school are in some ways different from the population that is not attracted to higher education. It is hard to say that the schooling is what made the big difference or if the people who do well in school had other qualities that set the stage for the difference observed between those who do well at school and those who don’t. This doesn’t mean school is a waste or that we should invest in it less, but rather that we should consider a wider range of schooling options to allow people to demonstrate their unique qualities in different ways.
The other piece I like about the quote is the obliquity of schooling and education in our journey to tell others how amazing we are. It is hard to demonstrate one’s skills and qualities, but going through an obstacle course, such as college, is a good way to show our positive qualities and skills. Education is one obstacle we use to differentiate ourselves and advertise how capable we are in a socially acceptable manner. There is something to be learned when thinking through policy from the education example. Direct approaches to policy-making sometimes are impossible, but indirect routes can open doors if they make it seem as though another good is being pursued with the outcome we want to see occurring incidentally.