The Politics of Human Capital

At Club Troppo, Don Arthur has an excellent long post on the politics of the human capital approach to poverty and inequality. An excerpt:

These research findings on early childhood [which show the importance of the development of cognitive and emotional/self-regulatory capacities for later economic achievement] create a dilemma for egalitarians. On the one hand, the research suggests that publicly funded investments in early childhood could significantly improve the well being of children from disadvantaged families. But on the other hand, they seem to be stigmatising less educated adults — particularly those who are unable to work and depend on welfare benefits. The poor are portrayed as underdeveloped human beings — ignorant, lethargic and unable to control their impulses. Worse still, their parenting practices have been identified as an important cause of intergenerational disadvantage.

This has a familiar ring to it. In the early 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville warned that England’s system of poor relief was cultivating a class of unproductive and disorderly citizens:

The number of illegitimate children and criminals grows rapidly and continuously, the indigent population is limitless, the spirit of foresight and of saving becomes more and more alien to the poor. While throughout the rest of the nation education spreads, morals improve, tastes become more refined, manners more polished — the indigent remains motionless, or rather he goes backwards. He could be described as reverting to barbarism. Amidst the marvels of civilisation, he seems to emulate savage man in his ideas and his inclinations (pdf).

It’s a fear that’s never really gone away. Recently, the Age’s Russell Skelton spoke with a group of Indigenous elders in Walgett about the effect of the Australian government’s baby bonus:

“My daughter has four kids and she cannot read or write,” says a member of the group, who feels powerless as a parent. It will become a terrible circle, predicts another: “Kids who cannot read or write have babies that won’t be able to read or write. But nobody can tell them that. They don’t want to listen.”

Some egalitarians worry that embracing the rhetoric of human capital means joining with conservatives to slander to disadvantaged. Social welfare initiatives become less about social justice and more about social control. Instead of focusing on the obligations of the rich, the human capitalists increasingly focus on the behaviour of the poor.

I think this is a profound insight. And I think one can see the outlines of a workable third way here. On the one side are conservatives and libertarians overly attached to genetic explanations of socioeconomic achievement, who therefore see spending on early childhood development as futile. On the other side are liberals overly attached to abstract structural explanations of the reproduction of class, who therefore see a focus on state interventions in early childhood as elitist victim-blaming. I find that I actually side more with the liberal complaint than with the conservative one, though not so much for the reason that it is victim-blaming. Many poor parents are to a large extent to blame for the under-development of their children. There doesn’t seem to be a way around that. But I worry very much about the social control of the poor by elites, which Don mentions. However, I worry about the harms of self-reproducing poverty even more. At this point, I’m not sure where I really stand, though I think I’m tilting in favor of Heckmanesque early childhood programs as part of the liberaltarian package, which also would include wage subsidies and beefed-up unemployment benefits together with a radical deregulation of the labor market and the economy at large.