Apr 16, 2015


This week we thought we’d offer a rare peek behind the scenes at Professor Heckman’s research center. We recently visited the Center for the Economics of Human Development (CEHD), located on the south side of the University of Chicago campus. CEHD’s mission is to advance knowledge through empirical and theoretical research that fosters human flourishing by identifying sources of disadvantage and promoting equality of opportunity. It’s Professor Heckman’s shop, where his research is developed and conducted, analyzed and debated, reviewed and revised – meticulously and repeatedly – until it’s ready to submit for publication. It’s a highly collaborative process between Professor Heckman and his research staff, numbering about two dozen.


The research assistants are at the heart of the Center’s work. Professor Heckman relies on them to bring in new ideas, insight and creativity; pour thousands of hours into econometric modeling and analysis; and challenge each others’ assumptions. They’re the unsung research heroes – and here’s a small sample of their latest work:


Senior research assistant and Ph.D. candidate Stefano Mosso recently published a paper titled The Economics of Human Development and Social Mobility with Professor Heckman that investigates the effects of the home environment, family economics and parental behavior on child outcomes and social mobility. Mosso and Heckman find that parental engagement, stimulating interaction and attachment are essential for skill development and critical determinants of later-life success. Untargeted income transfer policies, on the other hand, were found to be not nearly as effective in boosting long-term outcomes. These findings point to interventions that provide mentoring, improve parent-child interaction and encourage attachment as effective ways to address inequality and promote upward mobility.


In November, another CEHD senior research assistant and Ph.D. candidate, Tim Kautz, wrote a report commissioned by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, titled Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success. The report, co-authored by Professor Heckman, Belgian economist Ron Diris, and Dutch economists Bas ter Weel and Lex Borghans, finds that cognitive skills are only part of the story. Many interventions work because they foster non-cognitive skills – such as perseverance, motivation, impulse control and sociability. These social-emotional skills are highly predictive of success both in and out of the classroom, but IQ tests and achievement tests don’t provide adequate measurement. The authors also find that interventions that begin in early childhood, long before kindergarten, are the only ones shown to have long-term effects on IQ; and the most effective remediation programs for struggling adolescents from disadvantaged backgrounds focus on non-cognitive skill enhancement.


Another paper coming out of CEHD in the last few months, by research fellow and Ph.D. candidate Rodrigo Pinto in collaboration with Professor Heckman and Gabriella Conti of University College London, examines the impact of the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project on long-term health. In The Health Effects of Two Influential Early Childhood Interventions, Pinto, Heckman and Conti conclude that both early childhood interventions had significant health effects for the treatment groups. Disadvantaged children who participated in the Perry early intervention exhibited significantly fewer behavioral risk factors at age 40 (e.g., substantial reduction in smoking); while Abecedarian participants – who received coordinated nutrition services, health screenings and consultation, and early education through the program – ­were in far better physical health compared with their control group peers when examined in their mid-30s, presenting fewer risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, such as stroke and diabetes. This study contributes to a growing body of literature on the profound long-term health effects of high-quality early interventions. The implications for public health and healthcare economics are great.


Not yet published, but forthcoming research includes:


  • An analysis of the determinants of life outcomes, spearheaded by Ph.D. student Jorge Luis García, in which he simulates how scaled-up versions of Abecedarian and Perry implemented nationwide would reduce gaps in education, employment and criminal behavior between African Americans and Caucasians and between African Americans from disadvantaged versus advantaged backgrounds;
  • A cost-benefit analysis of the Abecedarian intervention, conducted by research professional Jake Torcasso and senior research assistants and Ph.D. candidates Andrés Hojman and Jorge Luis García, including costs saved as a result of the intervention’s recently published substantial impact on long-term health;
  • An extensive review of multiple U.S. early education programs, including but not limited to Head Start, Project CARE, the Infant Health and Development Program and the Early Training Project, by research professional Sneha Elango, Andrés Hojman and Jorge Luis García;
  • An effort led by Rodrigo Pinto analyzing the effects of the Nurse-Family Partnership program;
  • An evaluation of the Infant Health and Development Program by Ph.D. student Bradley Setzler;
  • An evaluation of the joint impact of home visiting curriculum proven effective in Jamaica combined with a targeted nutrition program in the context of rural China by research analyst Sylvi Kuperman, research professional Carey Cheng and Ph.D. candidate Rebecca Myerson;
  • A forecasting project led by Stefano Mosso and Jake Torcasso assessing the impact of early childhood interventions on lifetime earnings;
  • An examination of the causal effects of different levels of schooling on future earnings and health, headed up by Ph.D. student John Eric Humphries; and
  • A follow-up study of the Perry participants at age 50.


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