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The Dynamics of Inequality

The Birth Lottery

For a newborn, whether the gates to different opportunities are open or closed depends very much on family structure and income. Of course, these are mutually dependent and strongly associated with other relevant factors such as parental education, housing, neighborhood characteristics, and school quality. [1] All these factors have a direct bearing on the investments, private and public, that are made in children.

In general, children born to mothers who are single or in unstable relationships face more closed gates, and the rates of such births vary substantially by mother's race/ethnicity, age, educational attainment, and location. Although nonmarital birth rates are generally declining for all groups, the proportion of all births to unmarried mothers is still very high. For example, as of 2012, the proportion of nonmarital births overall was 40.7 %. [2] However, the proportions varied considerably by race/ ethnicity: They were 72.6 % for non-Hispanic Blacks, 54 % for Hispanics, and 29 % for non-Hispanic Whites. As one might expect, there is also considerable variation among states in both birth rates and proportions of nonmarital births. [3]

To introduce further nuance to this picture, it appears that less than 20 % of mothers who give birth out of wedlock are truly single; the others are in some form of relationship with the father (Wise 2013). However, these dyads are quite fragile. Follow-up data show that by their fifth birthday, 61 % of these children have experienced the dissolution of the relationship between the parents. By contrast, of children born to married parents, only 18 % have experienced a dissolution by their fifth birthday. [4]

Research supports the criticality of the period from birth to age 5. Not only is brain growth greater than at any other postnatal stage, but also the character of the early learning environment influences patterns of neural growth that in turn are related to the capacity to develop human capital (Fox et al. 2010). [5] By now there is an extensive research base that documents the conditions that strongly predict whether or not a child thrives in this critical period (Barton and Coley 2013). Some of these conditions typically involve monetary investments. They include preand postnatal care, good maternal health, adequate shelter and nutrition, living in a nontoxic environment, appropriate medical and dental care, and high quality day care (when needed). Other conditions involve nonmonetary investments. These include establishing a nurturing relationship, parental attention, socioemotional development, as well as cultivation of early language and numeracy skills.

There is an equally extensive research base that demonstrates that the probability that a child experiences something close to the ideal increases with income and stable family structure. Toward the high end of the income ladder, the gates are mostly open and the child is very likely to thrive; that is, grow up healthy and secure—arriving at school ready both cognitively and socioemotionally. Toward the low end of the ladder, many gates are closed and the child is much less likely to thrive. Similarly, children who are raised in two-parent families are more likely to find the gates open than are children raised in single-parent families, particularly if the mother is younger and not in a committed relationship (Grannis and Sawhill 2013; Doyle et al. 2009, 1–6; Heckman and Masterov 2007). Whether the gates are mostly open or closed is one manifestation of the constellation of conditions that are typical of higher incomes and/or two-parent families on the one hand, and of lower income and/or single parent families on the other. In both cases, there are powerful implications for future development.

Adequate nutrition can serve as a bellwether indicator of a child's environment. Food insecurity is strongly associated with family structure. Using 2011 survey data, it was found that female-headed households (no spouse) had a 37 % rate of food insecurity, while married couple households had a 14 % rate (Coley and Baker 2013, Fig. 7); both groups saw increases from 2005). Not surprisingly, the relationship between family income and food insecurity is particularly strong. For families with incomes below the poverty level, the rate is 45 %, while for families with incomes at least 1.85 times the poverty level, the rate is only 8 %.

Poverty is also associated with other obstacles to normal development. For example, studies find that lower income mothers report higher rates of maternal depression than do their higher income peers. A depressed individual is less likely to provide the attention and nurturing that are important to an infant thriving. Moreover, in comparison to children born to more affluent families, children growing up in poorer homes are more likely to be exposed to tobacco smoke and have higher blood levels of lead (Aizer and Currie 2014; Coley and Baker 2013, p. 19).

Many toddlers receive care outside of their own home, either in another home (a relative's or other) or in a center (e.g., early learning centers, nursery schools, and preschools). Among children around 4 years old receiving nonparental day care, poor ones were much more likely to receive low-quality care than nonpoor were (Coley and Baker 2013, Table 8). Not surprisingly, family income is strongly associated with the ability to make private expenditures on behalf of children. Data show that, in 2005–2006, parents in the highest income quintile invested nearly $8900 in children's enrichment, while those in the lowest quintile invested slightly more than $1,300, a ratio of 6.8. By comparison, in the years 1972–1973, the ratio was only 4.2 (Duncan and Murnane 2011, Fig. 1.6; see also Kaushal, Magnuson, and Waldfogel 2011).

As noted earlier, the gates to different opportunities tend to be open or closed in tandem. A child born to a young, single mother is more likely to grow up in poverty than one born to parents in a committed, stable relationship. The former is also more likely to live in a stressful environment, less likely to have positive extra-home experiences, such as visits to museums or exhibitions, and to receive beneficial contributions from extended family. It is repeatedly encountering closed gates (or, in other terms, multiple risk factors) that places many children at great disadvantage in their early years and beyond.

Thus, children born to families in different circumstances tend to develop along very different trajectories. Differences in cognitive skills, which are examples of what we here refer to as gaps, appear early on—as early as can be measured (Halle et al. 2009, 87–119; for an international perspective, see Bradbury et al. 2013). By the time children enroll in kindergarten, differences in readiness are striking. These results are consistent with the well-known findings of very large differences in vocabulary among kindergarten children from different SES strata (Hart and Risley 1995).

Clearly, the variation in environmental factors documented above is an important contributor. Direct parental investment in children's cognitive development also plays a role. Survey data reveal large differences by SES quintile. The percentage of kindergarteners whose parents read to them every day ranges from 62 % in the highest quintile to 36 % in the lowest. As one might expect, even within quintiles, there are noteworthy differences by race/ethnicity (Coley and Baker 2013).

  • [1] The work of Heckman and his associates is relevant here. For a summary of that work, see Heckman, Case for Investing.
  • [2] Birth rates are usually calculated as the number of births per 1,000 women in a particular category (e.g., unmarried women aged 15–19). Although nonmarital birth rates have been declining, it is still possible for the proportion of nonmarital births overall to be increasing. The explanation is that the proportion is a function of both category-specific birth rates and the distribution of women among the categories.
  • [3] For example, teen birth rates varied from a low of 13.8 % in New Hampshire to a high of 42.5 % in New Mexico; Centers for Disease Control 2013. For an explanation of the apparent paradox of declining birth rates and high proportions of nonmarital births, see Wise 2013.
  • [4] Tach's tabulations from the Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing Surveys, Waves 3–4, quoted in Smeeding, “Connecting Inequality and Intergenerational Mobility: Looking Ahead, Not Behind” (unpublished presentation).
  • [5] There is also evidence of continuing neuroplasticity into adolescence. An experiment in Chicago Public Schools focuses on accelerating the development of the math skills of African-American and Latino ninth and 10th graders who are lagging behind their age peers. See David L. Kirp, “Closing the Math Gap for Boys,” Sunday Review, New York Times, January 31, 2015.
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