Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Talking To Your Kids: Inequality And The Parenting Gap

As a follow up to my previous post, anybody interested in income inequality, social mobility and equality of opportunity needs to read this (excerpt, emphasis added):

The Parenting Gap

High-income parents talk with their school-aged children for three hours more per week than low-income parents, according to research by Meredith Phillips of UCLA.They also provide around four-and-a-half extra hours per week of time in novel or stimulating places, such as parks or churches, for their infants and toddlers.

Less-advantaged parents are struggling to make a living and often lack a partner to help them build better lives. Less money typically means more stress, tougher neighborhoods, and fewer choices. This is not to say that there has been a deterioration in parental investment in poorer families. In fact, parents without a high-school diploma spent more than twice as much time each day with their children in the 2000s than they did in the mid-1970s, according to data from the American Heritage Time Use Study, marshaled by Harvard’s Robert Putnam. But parents with at least a bachelor’s degree increased their investment of time more than fourfold over the same period, opening up a gap in time spent with kids, especially in the preschool years...

…To be blunt: If we want a fairer, more equal society, we need more parents to do a better job. And we need to do more to help them do a better job. Helping parents to improve is a legitimate—and perhaps increasingly important—public policy goal….

...Gaps in cognitive ability by income background open up early in life, according to research by Tamara Halle and her colleagues at Child Trends, a non-profit research center focused on children and youth. Children in families with incomes lower than 200 percent of the federal poverty line score, on average, one-fifth of a standard deviation below higher-income children on the standard Bayley Cognitive Assessment at nine months—but more than half a standard deviation below higher-income peers at two years. This is the social science equivalent of the difference between a gully and a valley. These early months are critical for developing skills in language and reasoning—and, of course, months in which parents play the most important role. Closing ability gaps in the first two years of life—pre-pre-K, if you like—means, by definition, closing the parenting gap... Research to date suggests that parenting accounts for around one-third of the gaps in development...

Education is the key to greater prosperity, education is the great leveller, education defines equality of opportunity…but it starts at home and it starts really, really, really early. If this is correct, children from lower income families are effectively handicapped right from the get-go. Need I say more?

You can read the original article here, and the paper on which it is based can be accessed here.

[H/T: Timothy Taylor via Mark Thoma]


  1. IMO, in Malaysia, I tend to blame parenting culture more than income for the parenting gap. Higher income usually goes hand in hand with higher parents education level & higher exposure to the world, i.e. overall more knowledgeable parents, who consciously decide what values they want to impart to their offspring.

    I don't fully agree with the article. Indeed, the first 4-5 years of a child's life is crucial for character building. However, 11 years of good education and right environment can bridge most of these gaps. I say most because some gaps will take a lifetime to close. For example, self confidence, very hard to instill if parents have damaged or did not nurture this properly.

    What's the solution to help improve the Bumis? I am now of the view, we should give monthly cash subsidy to all hardcore poor and perhaps all local school going children. Teach civic or morality in school as a subject. All these kids will grow up to be a parent someday, we can help ensure they become a better parent than their parents. Also, in addition to kelas motivasi for children, there should also be kelas motivasi for parents!

    1. @anon 3.16

      Generally, you are correct - the high income characteristic is used as an indicator for parental ability.

      However, you are misreading the article's conclusion. Given 11 years of good education, other things being equal a child who has had better parentage will continue to be ahead of a child from a poorer home environment - there is no closing of the gap. Better education will may lead to better outcomes overall, but those who are better equipped to take advantage of the education given them will continue to be ahead. There's a reason why students attending tertiary institutions generally come from higher income families.

      This is hardly the first study to reach this conclusion - there have been many more, based on large long term surveys of actual family, education, and income outcomes.