Here is the summary of “Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions That Improve Character and Cognition” by James Heckman and Tim Kautz:
Character skills predict later-life outcomes with the same, or greater, strength as measures of cognition. … There is substantial evidence that high-quality early childhood programs have lasting and beneficial effects on character skills. The evidence on interventions in elementary schools shows lasting benefits of interventions that primarily operate through boosting character skills. There are few long-term evaluations of adolescent interventions.
The available evidence suggests a much greater benefit from programs that target character skills compared to the benefits of programs that mainly target cognition and academic learning. Workplace-based programs that teach character skills appear to be the most effective remediation interventions for adolescents. They motivate acquisition of work-relevant skills and provide discipline and guidance for disadvantaged youth that is often missing in their homes or high schools. Successful interventions at any age emulate the mentoring and attachment that successful families give their children.
The available evidence suggests that the most successful remediation programs are not as effective as the most successful early childhood programs. Building an early base of skills that promote later-life learning and engagement in school and society is a better strategy. Prevention is more effective than remediation.
But why this is an argument for a universal program, I am not sure. Russ Whitehurst of Brookings on pre-K and other childhood intervention programs: “The largest impacts have always been associated with children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. This argues for targeted, intensive programs, not universal ones.”
Unless of course, you have great cynicism about the decency of the American people — that they would reject a program, proven effective, that would helps kids who aren’t their own kids. Indeed, this philosophy is at the heart of the progressive resistance to means testing welfare programs. But if that were true, what about the broad support for the Earned Income Tax Credit? As William Voegeli writes in Never Enough:
In reality, the EITC enjoys bipartisan support in Congress and is politically unassailable. “If means testing makes Social Security as unpopular at the EITC,” writes Mickey Kaus. “Democrats have nothing to fear.”