Nicholas Kristof on low-income kids!


And our own discourse on method: Nicholas Kristof has read a new book which seems to say the same old things. Namely:

Kids who come from low-income, low-literacy backgrounds tend to be strongly disadvantaged. There may not be any books in the home. Their parents or care-givers may not read to them—may not take them to the library.

When it comes to literacy training, low-income kids are disadvantaged in many ways. At one point, Kristof tells a poignant story about someone he knew when he was a child—someone whose family wasn’t well off:
KRISTOF (1/24/13): [P]artly by necessity, working-class families often take a more hands-off attitude to child-raising...

When I was a third-grader, a friend struggling in school once went with me to the library, and my mother helped him get a library card. His grandmother then made him return it immediately, for fear that he would run up library fines.
Truly, that’s a sad story. Meanwhile, kids who come from high-literacy backgrounds live in a different world.

This Christmas, a certain 6-year-old relative of ours was reading up a storm. Last Christmas, as a kindergartner, she had been conducting a love affair with the alphabet. She had come a very long way in one year—and she was plowing onward.

Two Thanksgivings ago, when she was 4, she presented a memorable sight. We saw her sitting on her family's sofa pretending to read the New York Times. She had seen all the adults around her do it; she was pretending that she could too. Children from middle-class, literate homes receive vast early advantages and incentives.

Kristof suggests that we spend more money on early childhood programs. Our question: How well do these programs work? We were frustrated by the following passage, in a way we’ve described before:
KRISTOF (continuing directly from above): The upshot is that many low-income children never reach the starting line, and poverty becomes self-replicating.

Maybe that’s why some of the most cost-effective antipoverty programs are aimed at the earliest years. For example, the Nurse-Family Partnership has a home-visitation program that encourages new parents of at-risk children to amp up the hugging, talking and reading. It ends at age 2, yet randomized trials show that those children are less likely to be arrested as teenagers and the families require much less government assistance.

Or take Head Start. Critics have noted that the advantage its preschoolers gain in test scores fades by third grade, but scholars also have found that Head Start has important impacts on graduates, including lessening the chance that they will be convicted of a crime years later.
We’re often frustrated by passages like this. Here’s why:

According to Kristof, children involved with that Nurse-Family Partnership program “are less likely to be arrested as teenagers.” But how much less likely is it that they will be arrested?

Kristof doesn’t say. For all a reader gets to know, the effect may be quite small.

Also according to Kristof, participation in Head Start “lessens the chance that [children] will be convicted of a crime years later.” But by how much does it lessen the chance?

Kristof doesn’t say.

We’re often frustrated by this sort of thing when pundits cite studies. Routinely, we’re told that some intervention has a positive effect—but we aren’t told how large the effect is. This leaves open the possibility that the effect is small.

Note the one place where Kristof suggests the size of the alleged effect. According to Kristof, families who take part in the Nurse-Family Partnership program requite “much less government assistance” later on.

We still don’t know what “much” really means. But the word suggests that the other effects he cites in this passage are in fact rather small.

We’d love to hear about early intervention programs which actually work. But how well do such programs work?

Columnists ought to say.


  1. Excellent post, Bob. Proving causation is generally problematic. Is there something abouit Head Start that makes children less likely to be arrested years later? Or, is the difference accounted for by a difference between children who go into HS vs. those who don't? A big difference in arrest rates would make it more likely that HS is the cause of the improvement.

    One nit: the post seems to almost equate low-income backgrounds with low-literacy backgrounds. No doubt there's lots of overlap, but many poor people do value literacy. E.g., certain groups of poor immigrants promoted education and literacy. Culture may be a more significant factor than financial background.

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