Liberals are generally well-aware that growing up in poverty gives children significant disadvantages in life that make blithe talk of “equality of opportunity” pretty hollow. Jon Cohn has a fascinating article in the New Republic that looks at some of the relatively recent evidence on the neurological development science underlying some of these problems. It’s interesting on its own terms, but an interesting suggestion from Cohn is more political than scientific. He quotes Jack Shonkoff as arguing that “The concept of disrupting brain circuitry is much more compelling than the concept that poverty is bad for your health.”
In other words, maybe giving a sciency gloss can give a new sheen to some social justice concerns. And maybe so. But the reality is that high-quality interventions are bound to cost a fair amount of money, and that winds up running headlong into the currently toxic politics of taxes in the United States. Cohn, enlisting James Heckman as a source, argues forcefully and persuasively that investing funds in early childhood interventions would pay off economically. I completely agree. But right now the debate inside the Democratic Party is over whether or not it’s acceptable to raise taxes on people earning between $250,000 and $1,000,000 per year. The idea that broad-based taxes to finance broad-based social programs is sometimes a good idea is completely off the table in American politics right now.
That leaves you with the option of turning a serious national early childhood policy into yet another thing that we’ll pay for through higher taxes on the rich. Politically, this is perfectly clever. Democrats propose higher taxes on the rich as part of deficit reduction, Republicans block it, and Democrats get to complain about it. Then Democrats propose higher taxes on the rich as part of a jobs program, Republicans block it, and Democrats get to complain about it. I’m sure higher taxes on the rich to pay for early childhood eduction would also poll well. From everything I’ve seen, the voters are eager to tax the rich. But none of this shows any signs of actually working as a way of changing public policy.