Saturday, November 27, 2021

Social and Educational Mobility: Denmark vs USA (James Heckman)

Despite generous social programs such as free pre-K education, free college, and massive transfer payments, Denmark is similar to the US in key measures of inequality, such as educational outcomes and cognitive test scores. 

While transfer payments can equalize, to some degree, disposable income, they do not seem to be able to compensate for large family effects on individual differences in development. 

These observations raise the following questions: 

1. What is the best case scenario for the US if all progressive government programs are implemented with respect to child development, free high quality K12 education, free college, etc.?

2. What is the causal mechanism for stubborn inequality of outcomes, transmitted from parent to child (i.e., within families)? 

Re #2: Heckman and collaborators focus on environmental factors, but do not (as far as I can tell) discuss genetic transmission. We already know that polygenic scores are correlated to the education and income levels of parents, and (from adoption studies) that children tend to resemble their biological parents much more strongly than their adoptive parents. These results suggest that genetic transmission of inequality may dominate environmental transmission.

The Contribution of Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills to Intergenerational Social Mobility (McGue et al. 2020)

Note: Denmark is very homogenous in ancestry, and the data presented in these studies (e.g., polygenic scores and social mobility) are also drawn from European-ancestry cohorts. The focus here is not on ethnicity or group differences between ancestry groups. The focus is on social and educational mobility within European-ancestry populations, with or without generous government programs supporting free college education, daycare, pre-K, etc.

Lessons for Americans from Denmark about inequality and social mobility 
James Heckman and Rasmus Landersø 
Abstract Many progressive American policy analysts point to Denmark as a model welfare state with low levels of income inequality and high levels of income mobility across generations. It has in place many social policies now advocated for adoption in the U.S. Despite generous Danish social policies, family influence on important child outcomes in Denmark is about as strong as it is in the United States. More advantaged families are better able to access, utilize, and influence universally available programs. Purposive sorting by levels of family advantage create neighborhood effects. Powerful forces not easily mitigated by Danish-style welfare state programs operate in both countries.
Also discussed in this episode of EconTalk podcast. Russ does not ask the obvious question about disentangling family environment from genetic transmission of inequality.

The figure below appears in Game Over: Genomic Prediction of Social Mobility. It shows SNP-based polygenic score and life outcome (socioeconomic index, on vertical axis) in four longitudinal cohorts, one from New Zealand (Dunedin) and three from the US. Each cohort (varying somewhat in size) has thousands of individuals, ~20k in total (all of European ancestry). The points displayed are averages over bins containing 10-50 individuals. For each cohort, the individuals have been grouped by childhood (family) social economic status. Social mobility can be predicted from polygenic score. Note that higher SES families tend to have higher polygenic scores on average -- which is what one might expect from a society that is at least somewhat meritocratic. The cohorts have not been used in training -- this is true out-of-sample validation. Furthermore, the four cohorts represent different geographic regions (even, different continents) and individuals born in different decades.

The figure below appears in More on SES and IQ.

Where is the evidence for environmental effects described above in Heckman's abstract: "More advantaged families are better able to access, utilize, and influence universally available programs. Purposive sorting by levels of family advantage create neighborhood effects"? Do parents not seek these advantages for their adopted children as well as for their biological children? Or is there an entirely different causal mechanism based on shared DNA?



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