The lives of children from rich and poor American families look more different than they have in decades.
“Early childhood experiences can be very consequential for children’s long-term social, emotional and cognitive development,” said Sean F. Reardon, professor of poverty and inequality in education at Stanford University. “And because those influence educational success and later earnings, early childhood experiences cast a lifelong shadow.”
The cycle continues: Poorer parents have less time and fewer resources to invest in their children, which can leave children less prepared for school and work, which leads to lower earnings.
American parents want similar things for their children, the Pew report and past research have found: for them to be healthy and happy, honest and ethical, caring and compassionate. There is no best parenting style or philosophy, researchers say, and across income groups, 92 percent of parents say they are doing a good job at raising their children.
Children were not always raised so differently. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is 30 percent to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than those born 25 years earlier, according to Mr. Reardon’s research.
People used to live near people of different income levels; neighborhoods are now more segregated by income. More than a quarter of children live in single-parent households — a historic high, according to Pew – and these children are three times as likely to live in poverty as those who live with married parents. Meanwhile, growing income inequality has coincided with the increasing importance of a college degree for earning a middle-class wage.
Yet there are recent signs that the gap could be starting to shrink. In the past decade, even as income inequality has grown, some of the socioeconomic differences in parenting, like reading to children and going to libraries, have narrowed, Mr. Reardon and others have found.
Public policies aimed at young children have helped, he said, including public preschool programs and reading initiatives. Addressing disparities in the earliest years, it seems, could reduce inequality in the next generation.