Falling Behind Early – The Plight of the Children of the Poor

It has never been easy for the children of the poor to break out of their impoverished circumstances and, as adults, advance economically into the middle class.  Now the door of opportunity may be closing even more.

Increasingly, better paying jobs require higher education, but for the children of the poor education rarely moves beyond high school. This too often regulates them to a lifetime of low-paying jobs in fast food, construction and similar industries.

In the past many young men may have hated school but they were “handy,” and when they got their high school diploma they could find factory jobs that paid well. But those jobs no longer exist. Economists speak of a polarization in the job market with high-skill, high-paying jobs on one end of the scale and low-skill, poor-paying jobs at the other end.

University of Maryland economist Melissa Schettini Kearney believes policies must be adopted that will upgrade the earning capacities of more Americans. In testimony earlier this year before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, Kearney noted the growing disparity in income between the top five percent and other income groups:  Between 1975 and 2010, “Families in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution saw their income increase by a mere 3.7 percent while those in the top five percent saw an average income gain of 57 percent.”

Kearney is especially concerned about how this lack of income may be affecting the children of the poor. In her testimony, she cites a study by Waldfogel and Washbrook, 2011, which indicates that by age four children in the highest income quintile are scoring in the 69th percentile on tests for math and literacy, while those in the lowest quintile are scoring in the mid-thirties.

Many others who study the effects of poverty on children share the concerns raised by Kearney. A 2011 study by Greg Duncan, Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of California at Irvine, and a colleague found that children raised in impoverished conditions have educational deficits early on. Here’s a chart showing some disturbing rates of proficiencies among kindergarten children:

Childhood poverty1

Duncan is especially interested in the timing of a child’s economic deprivation and how this may affect outcomes as an adult. In an article in Pathways – The Long Reach of Early Childhood Poverty – Duncan observes:

Early childhood is a particularly sensitive period in which economic deprivation may compromise children’s life achievement and employment opportunities. Research continues to confirm a remarkable sensitivity (and a growing number) of developing brain structures and functions that are related to growing up in an impoverished home.

Using a study that tracked children from the prenatal stage to adulthood, Duncan finds that the “simple associations between income early in life and adult outcomes are striking.” Here is his chart showing adult outcomes from poverty experienced between the prenatal year and age five.


Childhood Poverty 2

Posted: October 2, 2104

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