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Sabbatical Lecture: Understanding Important Contexts for Early Child Development

Aug. 15, 2003

You are invited to attend the Sabbatical Lecture of Dr. Back A. Taylor, W.H. Smith Professor of Economics, Hankamer School of Business.

"Understanding Important Contexts for Early Child Development"

Monday, September 8, 2003

3:30 pm

5th Floor, Cashion Academic Center

Reception to follow

Dr. Taylor was on sabbatical during the 2002-03 academic year at Harvard University.

A Baylor University Sabbatical Lecture
by
Beck A. Taylor, Ph.D.
W.H. Smith Professor of Economics
Department of Economics

Abstract

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Economists have long been interested in "human capital development," the process by which people acquire personal characteristics - such as knowledge, intelligence, experience, training, and education - that are associated with positive life outcomes. The measurement of economic returns that derive from such characteristics has been a research focal point in labor economics.

Most research in this area examines human capital development beginning in the school-age years and extending through high school, higher education, and work experiences. Economists have only recently become interested in human capital formation in early childhood, a period of time loosely defined as birth to enrollment in kindergarten (ages 0-5 years). Developmental psychologists have long been aware of differences among children in their developmental trajectories, that is, the rates at which children acquire cognitive, language, and social skills, and that these differences are evident as early as the first three years of life. It is certainly the case that developmental outcomes in early childhood will have lasting consequences for outcomes later in life.

Once differences across children in their developmental trajectories are identified, a particularly important public policy question concerns why such differences exist, and to what extent public policy can be written to protect groups of children who are at risk. One way to answer these questions is to consider the varied environments in which children live, that is, the contexts of child development.

In this lecture, I will summarize my research on one particularly ruinous context of early child development, family poverty. Poverty impacts approximately 12 million children (16.3 percent) living in the United States. Among Black and Hispanic children, poverty rates approach 30 percent. Compared with their non-poor peers, children living in poverty are more likely to experience inadequate nutrition, reduced access to health care and insurance, fewer learning opportunities, residential instability, lower-quality schools, family violence, and dangerous neighborhoods. In light of poverty's far-reaching impact on children's experiences, it is hardly surprising that its developmental effects on young children are pervasive and span physical health, cognitive ability, school achievement, and behavior problems. Indeed, poverty is typically identified as a global risk factor for most health and developmental outcomes.

Family economic resources are linked to children's developmental outcomes through a number of transmission pathways. My lecture will focus on two of these pathways: the "investment" pathway, wherein economic resources are used to improve learning supports and the home environment, and the "family stress" pathway, wherein economic resources improve parent-child interactions via improved parent mental health. In particular, I will discuss research findings concerning the impact of family economic resources on children's cognitive, language, and social outcomes in the first three years of life. Not surprisingly, fewer economic resources are associated with worse developmental outcomes. Importantly, this association is only strengthened when considering children living in poverty. I will discuss possible mediators of the association between economic resources and child outcomes, including measures of the quality of the home environment and learning supports, and parent mental health. Additionally, important moderators of the association between economic resources and developmental outcomes, such as the quality of child care settings, will be discussed. Research findings suggest that higher-quality child care can serve as a protective intervention, buffering children from the negative consequences of poverty.

This research is sponsored by the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Baylor University, and the W.H. Smith family. 

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