Heckman and Pritzker Pitch Apps as Poverty “Solutions” Yielding a 13% Return on Investment

This is the fourth in a series providing context for the Global Business Summit on Early Childhood that ReadyNation will be hosting in New York City November 1-2, 2018. The featured image is from an article pitching Waterford Upstart online preschool, piloted in Utah, a state experimenting with funding early childhood education using social impact bonds. The caption on the photo states that this four year old doesn’t have running water in her home, but she does have access to literacy education on a chromebook.

The focus of this post is Dr. James Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago since the early 1970s. Much of his research focuses on investments in early childhood as it pertains to labor markets. In 2000, Dr. Heckman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for contributions to the field of micro-econometrics. James Heckman; Arthur Rolnick, former senior researcher at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve; and Robert Dugger, venture capitalist and ReadyNation advisor, have worked together for decades. Below is a relationship map for Heckman. See the interactive version here.

Heckman Little Sis

Heckman; Dugger, and Stephen Durlauf, another professor of economics at the University of Chicago, lead the Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Global Working Group (HCEO). Launched in 2010, the initiative is run by the Center for the Economics of Human Capital Development and supported financially by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, a think tank established by George Soros in the aftermath of the financial collapse of 2008. Yes, Soros is funding human capital research conducted by a professor working out of the Becker (Milton) Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago. In the short video below, Heckman describes how HCEO fosters interdisciplinary research between 400+ academics who research poverty and then use that research to influence public policy.

HCEO’s six focus areas are closely linked to the social impact investment sector: childhood interventions, family inequality, health inequality, identity and personality, inequality measurement and policy, and markets.

HCEO Funding

With financial support from JB Pritzker via the Pritzker Children’s Initiative, Heckman’s academic work has been organized into an online tool kit to promote early childhood education as an investment opportunity, one they claim could yield a 13% annual rate of return once health outcomes are taken into account.

Suzanne Muchin’s branding firm Mind + Matter Studio developed The Heckman Equation website. Muchin served for four years as Vice President of programs for Teach for America and serves on the board of 1871, a tech accelerator based in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart launched by Pritzker in 2012.

Heckman Equation

Pritzker is a tech-oriented venture capitalist and politician. His sister Penny served on the Chicago Board of Education and later as Commerce Secretary in the Obama administration. In 2014, the Pritzker Foundation joined with the Gates, Irving Harris, and Kaiser Family Foundations and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund to create the First Five Years Fund to expand universal pre-k access. Pritzker has participated, as a funder, in two pilot early childhood social impact bond programs in the United States; one in Salt Lake City and the other in Chicago. If you are not up to speed on the history of and dangers posed by SIBs and pay for success programs, spend some time looking over the resources here.

In the trailer for a new documentary on social impact bonds, The Invisible Heart, Pritzker states:

“We are in the nascent stages of a social impact bond boom. Could be as big as the New York Stock Exchange…I’ve heard (people say), why are we letting investors make money off of our children. Well, that’s silly.” JB Pritzker

Pritzker is the Democratic candidate in the Illinois governor’s race. He has also thrown money to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s campaign “Choose Children,” that is pushing to elect a governor of California who will be a “champion of young children.” Of course the subtext here is that Silicon Valley hopes to install a governor who will scale pay for success early childhood education programs, programs that will tap the state’s millions of vulnerable children as profit centers.

Choose Children CA

Heckman and Pritzker have been laying the groundwork for the early childhood impact investing market for years. The remainder of this post is comprised of clips and transcripts I pulled from a presentation the two men gave in San Diego in 2016. The passages that follow make it clear the formerly worthy idea of “whole child” education has been completely hijacked by global finance. It also explains why in some districts in Maine half the report card rubrics now revolve around evaluations of “habits of mind.”

If you have time to watch the entire hour, I encourage you to listen as these two men discuss their plans to create tools that will measure non-cognitive skills in service of outcomes-based contracts and a futures market in infant and toddler data. They are creating the next “big short” right before our eyes, and this time it’s not homes hanging in the balance, it’s our children. As if IQ scores weren’t awful enough, now they are developing an IQ equivalent for Big 5 character traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. They want to define and rate our kids according to their “soft skills.”

Kauffman ReadyNation SIB 2

Below are presentation highlights in case you don’t have time to listen to the clips:

  • Poverty it’s not just about money, it’s about “parenting, encouragement and skills.”
  • Investing in young children yields higher results relative to workforce and life outcomes than do investments in older children and teens.
  • The highest returns will be on interventions directed at ages 0 to 3.
  • Children have achievement gaps documented as early as age 3.
  • IQ doesn’t increase much after a child reaches the age of 10, but interventions can continue to shape a child’s “character skills” to improve workforce outcomes.
  • It’s not just about being smart; it’s about being motivated.
  • Heckman identifies non-cognitive skills as a “target of opportunity” for investors.
  • But first they need to develop an inventory of social emotional skills to assess, track, and measure non-cognitive traits. (For the purposes of predicting outcomes for impact investment evaluation).
  • Having the OECD (promoter of PISA) on board is a good sign.
  • By “improving outcomes” through interventions, they claim poor children will require fewer public expenditures in the future. Social impact bonds will then capture those anticipated savings as profit to be handed over to private investors.
  • Factoring in health outcomes, the return on these investments could be as high as 13% per year, which is HUGE.
  • Pritzker plans to identify cheap, scalable interventions-like parenting apps. (Because all impoverished families really need is an app to tell them what they should be doing to parent their children.)
  • There has been push-back from both ends of the political spectrum against using Pay for Success to Fund early childhood interventions, but they were able to convince communities by using compelling financial structures and promising “results.”
  • In closing, Heckman says you have to get parents on board or the whole thing is going to fail.

Do you hear that parents?!

Their talk was sponsored by Education Synergy Alliance, whose director Laura Kohn came from Seattle where she worked as a state-level advocate for the Gates Foundation, and San Diego Grantmakers, a collaborative that has been promoting use of Pay for Success in program delivery. Connie Matsui, social entrepreneur and former chair of the San Diego Foundation, brought Heckman and Prizker to San Diego in 2016.

This two-minute clip is from JB Pritzker’s introduction. Watch it here.

Heckman Pritzker

(Pritzker) “Really, I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be here. I had the opportunity to be here earlier today, and so did Jim, to speak to the larger community foundations where they are doing amazing work and where so many communities from around the country that have large endowments and lots of donor advised funds are beginning to look at early childhood development as an important arena for them. I’m, of course, particularly grateful to be asked to join Professor Heckman and to share thoughts today on a subject that I care deeply about, and that I believe is maybe the most important issue facing us in the country today, early childhood development.

So in truth, I’m a businessman (fortune valued at $3.4 billion), and I’m not a Nobel prize winner. No one will ever claim I will win anything like that. I’m lucky to share a stage occasionally with Professor Heckman. So I’ll speak from my heart about what I care about deeply and from the position that I come from. I’m here to solicit you for your business. I want to make a pitch to you today. It’s a subject that I care about, that’s about making investments. And so if you’re ready for my pitch…if you invest with me, and you invest with Professor Heckman we can not only unlock human potential, but we can also get you at HUGE return on your investment. So, do you want to hear the rest of my pitch?”

The middle section of the presentation, between timestamp 23:30 and timestamp 35:00, features Dr. Heckman presenting his theories about the importance of character education in public schools; that non-cognitive (social emotional) skills are more important to workforce outcomes than cognitive (academic) performance. He goes on to discuss the importance of interventions linked to non-cognitive skills training to health outcomes. Heckman proposes that certain interventions will yield an impressive rate of return of up to 13% once health outcomes are considered. Watch a seven-minute excerpt here.

(Heckman) “Poverty, as we understand it now is not just money. Poverty, of course the way we measure it IS money, but actually it’s more than that. We’ve come to understand that it’s not JUST money. And that is what the great experiment was launched by Johnson. We’ve also come to understand it has to do with parenting, encouragement and basically this set of skills. And I think what we have now is a much more comprehensive notion.

So basically we think the early lives play a very important role for promoting social mobility, for promoting equality. And then miracle of miracles and we started following these people using the same kind of experiments that were started, but then stopped in the wake of the war on poverty, and head start. What we found was, yes, actually IQ did fade out after about age 10, just like Jenson said, just like everybody said.

And guess what? When we follow these people to age 40 and 50, these people have very high social and economic returns, and it came exactly through this mechanism of character skills and engagement. And surprise of surprise, even though these kids didn’t have any higher IQ, it also turned out they actually did have higher test scores. Why? Because these achievement test scores involve more than just being smart, it’s being motivated

We think about the skills problem, and JB referred to this skills problem, it’s an enormous problem. So we looked for examples at this measure, the civil international adult literacy survey that’s taken every few years. It’s basically America, the United States, when stacked up against all of the OECD countries is the worst in terms of percentages of people who are at the lowest rung of literacy and numeracy. We mentioned another dimension of this is the fact that among children, among males 16 to 26 eligible for military service, only about 25% are actually qualified. They’re mostly disqualified, a lot of it has to do with cognitive deficits and so forth. Now these are preventable, because we know from these interventions that we can do something about it.

We have the skills problem. But how do you promote skills? That leads to another issue if you…look at test score gaps, which is what sees a lot of attention between the haves and the have-nots; if you look at age 18 you see a tremendous gap between those kids who have parents who are college-educated and those whose parents are high school drop outs, mothers probably, ok. So if you look at the graph you’ll also see that that gap is there before they enter school, and it’s actually there at age three, which is the earliest age we can reliably measure these things.

So now wait a minute, you can say oh we’re talking about genetics, that’s a perfect eugenic argument, right? These people are born dumb to dumb parents and their dumb parents didn’t get education, so therefore this is just the manifestation of what Charles Murray was talking about. The answer is no, because what we’ve done is we’ve actually randomly assigned these children, put them in different environments, enriched their local environment, their parenting environment, the school environments. And we then track them against students who didn’t receive such supplementation early in life, and we find they’re much better performing. But we need a much richer inventory of how we decide what’s better and a deeper understanding of what the skills are that make them successful in life.

So, I think a good measure of how much the world has changed in terms of thinking about skills is a new report issued by the OECD. The OECD was the group that promotes the PISA exam, so every few years you know Shanghai is very proud and has some of the highest PISA scores in the world. And you go into China and you go into Hong Kong and they are lower and very envious. But the OECD now is getting the point. It only got it recently, but it’s now starting to say we need to inventory exactly these character skills, because they’ve been shown to be predictive, they’re also highly malleable, and they’re actually highly valuable even to somewhat later ages.

So even when we think we can’t boost IQ, that might be very difficult because the rank is stable and your ranking in the IQ distribution is pretty well established as JB was saying around 8, 9, 10 or somewhere in that zone. It is still true that these character skills are more manipulable (malleable?). In the sense they are actually our target of opportunity. So a much deeper understanding, and I think when we go in and look at what the economic and social benefits are of these interventions, we have a deeper and more comprehensive evaluation system looking at both cognitive and non-cognitive skills.

But to come to the economic return; we can see substantial benefits. So we have actually computed the rate of return, the kind of rate of return that venture capitalists worry about, and should properly worry about, and that many of you probably worry about. What we found was the rate of return on something like the Perry Preschool Program was somewhere between seven and ten percent per annum, per annum, which is extremely high. If you look at the US stock market average investment in equity between 45 and 2008, that’s above that. Great, ok so you’re actually finding it’s a very, very good investment. These are targeted towards kids who are disadvantaged; it’s providing family supplementation. We can talk about the details of those programs. Then, more recently, we did some studies and this blew people out; it blew me out. We also followed another group of children who are actually followed now in the wake of the Perry study, but in Raleigh Durham, North Carolina. We followed these children up to age 35, and we not only gave them the standard measures of unemployment, crime, participation in the larger society, but we also looked at health.

We asked how did they look in terms of health? What we found was that those children, now actually adults, have much lower risk factors for all the adult onset diseases: lower propensity for diabetes, lower cardiovascular conditions. And what we see is that there is not only a benefit that comes, but health. How can that be? It’s because of that same notion of regulation behavior, following numeracy, getting engaged in the larger society. We find less smoking, less drinking, less engagement in unhealthy lifestyles in the wake of having these higher levels of cognitive and non-cognitive skills. So, you know, we’re in the process of learning. But the fact of the matter is we’re getting a very high rate of return for that intervention. Preliminary evidence is suggesting somewhere between 11 and 13 percent IF we include the enhanced health benefits.”

This section is from the question and answer period and closing to the presentation. Timestamp 48:50, watch it here.

Pritzker Heckman Panel

(Pritzker) “That expense that you talked about; gee, that’s a very expensive intervention? That’s taken into account in these returns, okay. So it’s not like, I mean, the expense gets you that return. So it doesn’t matter that your investment was a thousand dollars or a hundred dollars or five thousand dollars. The return is what you get on those dollars invested.

(Heckman) But in addition to the direct expense you’re also going to get the welfare cost of raising taxes, so that’s also factored in here, so the sum of ten percent or the return is after accounting for actually the direct cost of hiring the teachers and the cost of collecting taxes to finance those. So that’s why I think it’s a fairly compelling study…if you look at the evidence I’m happy to send you the papers we’ve written, and we’re writing more. But you are finding very strong precision about these estimates.

(Pritzker) And we’re not advocating for very, very expensive interventions specifically. There are lots of scalable, much less expensive interventions. In fact, that’s what I spend my time looking for and helping to evaluate the scalability of, because ultimately that’s how we’re going to get the federal, state, and local governments to adopt them. Right? They’ve got to feel less expensive, but the reality is the more expensive actually works, too…

(Heckman) It’s an area of evolution. We really want to find out what’s best practice and what’s cheaper, right?

(Pritzker) The returns on preschool are much lower than on 0 to 3. So the interventions on 0 to 3 that we know work are home visitation, just as an example. Home visitation works.

Now there’s an expensive version of home visitation, and there’s a less expensive version of home visitation. And there’s been lots of study on these home visitation programs, but the critical component of it is reaching the parent. The parent is the first and best teacher for a child and if you can reach a parent, almost every parent, almost, wants to be a good parent. So we know what works and we know what are some scalable versions. Some of them, by the way, are texting programs. So almost every poor parent in America has a smart phone, and there are programs just for reminding parents what things work, and they want to know and they want to do these things and they’ll find time to do them.


But back to getting communities to buy in, it is very hard, and we got involved, I’ll talk about social impact bonds. But basically bringing preschool to Utah, a state where the political environment for preschool is hard; we did it with a finance plan that made sense for Utah, for Salt Lake. It got community engagement in it and support for it, because, frankly because we showed them what the results would look like.

So we started with that. There was resistance on both ends for preschool for example and any kind of early childhood education. On one end of the political spectrum the resistance is, you’re interfering with the parent-child relationship; you’re somehow interceding, the government is being paternalistic and getting engaged in something that should be a private matter. That’s one side of the political spectrum. On the other side of the political spectrum are the views that well with a social impact bond is why are private investors getting involved in something government should do? The government should get all the returns on this, the taxpayers should get all the returns-I happen to agree with that, that the government should put forward. But how many people think, how many people have a surplus in their local, state or federal government right now? None.”

Previous posts about the ReadyNation Global Business Summit on Early Childhood:

Pre-K Profit: ReadyNation Hosts Global Business Leaders in New York City This November: Link

Making Childhood Pay: Arthur Rolnick, Steven Rothschild and ReadyNation: Link

Galton and Global Education Futures Forum: Scientific Racism Looking Backwards and Forwards: Link



One thought on “Heckman and Pritzker Pitch Apps as Poverty “Solutions” Yielding a 13% Return on Investment”

  1. JB is hated in Illinois. Republicans, of course, don’t like him, and even many Democrats favored Biss over him and were actually going to support Rauner over corrupt JB, who is an ally of corrupt political boss and the USA’s longest state Speaker of the House, Mike Madigan and his crime family.


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