Sunday, February 19, 2012

Poor People Tend to Be Bad Parents

The NY Times recently ran an article on the "Education Gap". For children's school performance, it used to be race that mattered (unsurprisingly, given rampant racism and segregated schools). However, gaps based on race have narrowed. At the same time, the gap between students from rich and poor families has grown: it's now DOUBLE the gap between blacks and whites. This gap continues throughout education, into the college years, meaning that children from poor families have an immensely difficult time succeeding in later life (since college completion is so key to upward social mobility).

So what causes this gap? Interestingly, it is not school spending (which has climbed every year, especially for poorer/less advantaged students, and has become more equal between districts in recent years). Instead, it seems to be parenting.

Rich parents not only outspend poor parents (they spend nine times as much per child), but perhaps more importantly, they spend much more time cultivating their children's minds. By the time they are six, rich children have spent 1300 more hours exploring the world (this doesn't mean traveling necessarily, just visiting anywhere not home or school)  and 400 more hours in literacy activities.

Rich people parent differently in other ways too: they talk a lot more to their children. A child from a professional family will hear something like 11 million words in a year, while one from a family on welfare will hear 3 million. They also encourage their children much more, interact with them more, and use more positive reinforcement. In general, their parenting is better by every measure.

By the time rich children arrive at school, they are already at a huge advantage, and the gap only increases over time (both because they are more able to learn, and because they continue to be exposed to more learning opportunities).

The sad thing about this is that talking to your children (or taking them to the park) is free, and so shouldn't need to be limited by socio-economic status. The fact that it is, and therefore social inequality perpetuates itself, is very depressing to me. Maybe mandatory parenting classes would be a good idea?

NB: I use the word "rich" in this post as a shorthand for "someone of high socio-economic status", which usually means educated and employed in a professional occupation. Not everyone in this category is actually wealthy (especially if they work in the nonprofit sector, live in an area with a high cost of living, or have made deliberate choices like having one parent at home which affect income). However, regardless of their income level, they are "rich" in other ways (in particular, their ability to access resources, their educational level, etc.), which is why I use that word here.


  1. I think a lot of this is for a few reasons:

    1) "rich" people are able to spend more time with their children and they aren't in daycare all day.

    2) they do research on what is actually "good" for children developmentally and not just what keeps them occupied

    3) children are able to experience more than just daycare or the home because the parents have the money to spend on outings.

    1. I'm not actually sure if "rich" people have more time or not, since most professional jobs require longer hours than low-skill, low-wage ones (in the US, in general the richer you are, the more you work: isn't that strange?).

      I think you are right with point #2 though, that rich people, being more educated, are better able to know how to parent effectively. That's why I think parenting classes might be a good idea: level the playing field a little bit?

  2. I agree with GiGi on (1), if not so much on the other two points.

    Being poor takes a lot of energy.

    Especially with the blue-collar occupations, it is not only the time to spend with the children that is scarce, it is also the life energy. Imagine working on your feet (waiting tables, retail, or factory work), at one or two jobs, where one cannot afford to stay at home with the kids. At the end of the day, after making food and a little clean-up and paying bills, you just want to collapse.

    Park = additional walking, and your feet are pulsating with pain. Talking = yet more questions to answer (like your did all day at the grocery store or similar).

    You love your kids, and you provide them with the basic necessities - and that's really all you have the energy for. Improvement seems infinitely taxing when keeping your head above the water is wearing you to the bone.

    ... and you do it all again tomorrow.

    The rich have the luxury of time AND unused energy stores.

    PS: I recommend "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich. She is single when she carries out her experiment, but she mentions lacking the energy to change her situation for the better.

    1. I have read Nickel and Dimed, which was interesting if a little bit naive (had the author really never heard of thrift stores? I find that hard to believe). Loved the descriptions of her jobs though.

      I certainly have never been poor in the sense above, but I have been poor in the sense of having no money and working full-time at 'bad' jobs, including stints at the Salvation Army, in food service, as a cleaning lady, and selling shoes. The jobs were of course tiring, and did hurt your feet, but I wouldn't say it was any more exhausting than a professional-type job. Having to make decisions, manage people, write, develop organizational systems, etc. is really tiring too, if in a different way. I don't think that poor people are more tired because of their jobs, unless we are talking about something really strenuous like coal mining.

      Also, as I mentioned to GiGi above, in the US, the higher your income the more hours you work. The rich actually work MORE than the poor.

      I think you're right about the exhausting aspects of being poor though. Work itself isn't that hard, but when you're poor life is a lot more complicated and everything takes longer. For instance, you don't have a car and public transportation takes 2-3 times as long; buying stuff is always complicated because you can't afford to just go do it, but must consider what/when to buy things, make multiple trips because you can't afford to buy it all at once, or visit special stores since that's the only place you can afford. You don't have enough money for some basic necessity, so must hustle and rearrange and borrow to get it. All this takes forever. Rich people don't have to waste hours finding ways to get money, or dealing with their bill collectors.

      It doesn't explain the talking thing though. Rich parents do things like narrate what they are doing; poor parents generally only talk when giving their children directions. Why is this? I think it's cultural.