ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Our next guest is a Nobel laureate, an economist who knows that providing support to new mothers means children who are healthier and more successful in life. James Heckman's conclusions are reinforced by a new study on the effectiveness of a home visiting program called the Nurse-Family Partnership, or NFP. It supports low-income first-time mothers in 43 states. Nurses visit new mothers during pregnancy through the age of 2, showing them how to care for their babies, urging them to read to their children, to take them out and show them things. And professor James Heckman's analysis shows that that can make a huge difference, especially for boys. Welcome to the program.
JAMES HECKMAN: Oh, glad to be here.
SIEGEL: Your paper looks at a Nurse-Family Partnership program in Memphis. It started in 1990, and it kept track of hundreds of kids who participated, tracking them until they were 12. What did you find?
HECKMAN: Well, at age 6, if you look for both boys and girls, you see both cognitive benefits - the, you know, ability to function in a classroom and to acquire knowledge and just to solve ordinary day-to-day problems - as well as social and emotional skills. That's for both boys and girls. When you get to age 12, the primary benefit that's lasting would be cognitive skills, cognitive skills that - for boys.
And there are benefits which are for the mother. During the period of time when the mother - looking at the first two years with the child, there does seem to be an enhanced strength of the maternal environment in the sense the mother has less anxiety. She seems better able to cope, and she herself is calmer and more maybe focused and directed towards the education of her child.
SIEGEL: But that big gender gap between boys and girls, boys still showing the benefits as you see it and as you analyze it through the age 12 - what's the big difference here?
HECKMAN: I think we as society are beginning to understand the greater vulnerability of boys, especially disadvantaged boys, the lower levels of resilience, if you will, to adversity. Girls, for whatever reason - and I think it may be biological or it may be because of the relationship with the mother. It's not fully understood. But girls can actually seemingly shake the adversity off. It's not that girls aren't affected by early adversity, but boys seem particularly vulnerable.
SIEGEL: The Nurse-Family Partnership, or NFP program, that you were analyzing was in Memphis.
SIEGEL: I've seen that there are similar positive effects from a similar idea in Jamaica, but that in Britain, a similar program did not show any great differences. Any idea why?
HECKMAN: Well, the British program I know less well, but the Jamaican program is a wonderful example. The Jamaican program had some of the same features, what I consider the key feature of the Nurse-Family Partnership program, which was that it encouraged mothers to interact with their children. And if you can get a chemistry going between the child and caregiver, what you've done is created a lifetime environment that motivates the child, that motivates the mother. And it builds a synergy which actually leads to productive children and productive families.
SIEGEL: We spoke years ago. You were talking about the value of preschool...
SIEGEL: ...For kids. And in this case, what you're describing, something very valuable, is - it's very modest. The intervention of the nurse is, you know, somebody shows up a few times to talk with the mother. And yet that yields big results, you say.
HECKMAN: Yes. So when we boil all this down, you know, I think it's almost like this Beatles song, you know, all it takes is love or something. It really is requiring that somebody love you. And love is a very scarce resource, of course, probably the scarcest resource in modern - in any society. But if somebody takes an interest in you - it doesn't have to be a massive - you know, for example, in Chicago, we've had these home projects, now torn down, the Robert Taylor Homes - very, very infamous in their own - gangs roaming around.
But children who grew up in those have come - many of them have become very successful or moderately successful - middle class, anyway. And always the ingredient was a mother or a caregiver who was sincerely interested in the lives of the children, protected the child, encouraged the child. I think that's what's missing. And I think that is the love that probably is the key ingredient.
SIEGEL: Well, professor Heckman, thanks for talking with us again.
HECKMAN: OK, it was great talking to you. Have a good day.
SIEGEL: That's professor James Heckman, economist at the University of Chicago.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEATLES SONG, "ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE")
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