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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Parenting, Opportunity, and Inequality

Along with more negative ratings of their neighborhoods, lower-income parents are more likely than those with higher incomes to express concerns about their children being victims of violence. At least half of parents with family incomes less than $30,000 say they worry that their child or children might be kidnapped (59%) or get beat up or attacked (55%), shares that are at least 15 percentage points higher than among parents with incomes above $75,000. And about half (47%) of these lower-income parents worry that their children might be shot at some point, more than double the share among higher-income parents.
The dramatic changes that have taken place in family living arrangements have no doubt contributed to the growing share of children living at the economic margins. In 2014, 62% of children younger than 18 lived in a household with two married parents – a historic low, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The share of U.S. kids living with only one parent stood at 26% in 2014. And the share in households with two parents who are living together but not married (7%) has risen steadily in recent years.1
These patterns differ sharply across racial and ethnic groups. Large majorities of white (72%) and Asian-American (82%) children are living with two married parents, as are 55% of Hispanic children. By contrast only 31% of black children are living with two married parents, while more than half (54%) are living in a single-parent household.
Parents with annual family incomes of $75,000 or higher are far more likely than those with lower incomes to say their children have participated in extracurricular activities. For parents with school-age children, the difference is particularly pronounced when it comes to doing volunteer work (a 27 percentage point difference between those with incomes of $75,000 or higher and those with incomes less than $30,000), participating in sports (25 points), and taking music, dance or art lessons (21 points). Similarly, by double-digit margins, higher-income parents with children younger than 6 are more likely than those with lower incomes to say their young children have participated in sports or taken dance, music or art lessons in the 12 months prior to the survey.
Aparna Mathur writes at the Aspen Institute:
We may be able to prevent the persistence of poverty across generations that has contributed to the lack of economic mobility in the U.S. if we can: help poor children get into good quality schools perhaps through school choice programs; allow young adults to get the skills training they need to get good jobs; expand paid apprenticeship programs; and adopt policies that discourage unwanted early pregnancies in unmarried women.

At the recent Aspen Institute Summit on Inequality and Opportunity, this issue was directly addressed by the panel of high school students, who reiterated that what they valued more was not the equalizing of incomes, but the equalizing of opportunities. They most appreciated having the same access to good schools, good jobs and good neighborhoods as those with higher incomes. They wanted the opportunity to prove that they could rise to the top of the income ladder through their own hard work, education, skills and eventual success.

I think this is an important lesson for all of us in policy. Government actions can either directly help the poor and disadvantaged through tax and transfer programs that aim to “equalize” incomes or they can work indirectly by improving access to good quality schooling and jobs. Focusing on the latter, even though the real gains may show up only in the long-term, is often just as critical as helping the poor and needy today.