In a new NBER paper, a group of economists, including James Heckman, have joined with researchers who study child development to analyze data from a multi-generational monkey raising experiment. It’s well known from the Harlow experiments of the 1950s that monkeys raised without their mothers don’t do so well. (It’s also from these experiments that the mantra of skin-to-skin mother-child contact comes from.) What’s distinctive in the new paper is that there are two generations of monkeys who are raised by their mothers or in nurseries and in each generation the treatment is randomly chosen. Indeed, I believe this new paper includes the children of monkeys discussed in this earlier paper which also included Heckman. The multi-generational experiment lets the researchers test whether disadvantage is transmitted down the generations and whether it can be alleviated.
The analysis indicates first that being raised by a mother results in better health and higher social status than being raised in a nursery (as measured by who wins disputes and ELO scores similar to those used in chess!). Second being raised by a mother who was raised by a mother is better than being raised by a mother who was raised in a nursery. The latter indicates that disadvantage transmits down the generations. Indeed, being raised by a mother who was raised in a nursery is just as bad as being raised in a nursery. In other words, it’s hard to ameliorate disadvantage in one generation.
The sample is small (about 100 monkeys in generation one and 60 in generation two) but because of random assignment still potentially useful.
File this under both "change is hard" and "bad things can have bad echoes down the generations."
For example I read recently, but couldn't find it again when I searched, that not only do willing African immigrants to the US do much better economically than refugees, but the effect is even more pronounced in their children.