February 12, 2012
Social Capital-ism: Do We Need Parental Investment Caps?
Posted by Christine Hurt

A few days ago, the NYT published an article about a recent study that show that the education gap between high and low income families is growing.  Both the gap between those in the 10th and 50th percentile, between 50th and 90th percentile, and 10th and 90th percentile are growing as measured by test scores of children.  And, the gap is present in kindergarten and doesn't narrow or widen appreciably.  Finally, this gap has widened at the same time that the racial achievent gap has narrowed substantially.

The author of the study situates it in within the current income disparity debate (title:  "The Widening Academic Achievent Gap Between the Rich and the Poor"), as does the NYT article ("Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor").  However, the author notes that his findings do not confirm or support the theory that the academic gap is primarily a result of the growing income disparity between the top 1% and the rest of the country.  More important, the author finds, is that above the median income, families are investing more in their children per earned dollar and getting results.  The author cites to studies describing how, in the past few decades, child-rearing advice has shifted from how to keep small children clean, well and quiet to how to keep them stimulated and jump start their learning processes. This study, cited by the NYT, shows the increase in dollars spent on children split into income deciles.  And, as these families earn more dollars, they continue to spend the same percentage (more dollars) on their children. 

What interests me is that these articles and studies suggest that there is a serious problem here.  And, presumably, that this is a problem that should be corrected, though no one is suggesting how.  I guess I'm crazy, but there's an underlying story here that is positive.  People are investing in their children, and their children are benefitting from the additional hours and dollars that parents spend today.  Nowhere in these studies does it say that the 10th percentile are testing worse at the end of the time period than at the beginning.  (They also don't say that the 10th percentile are doing better, but I presume that if that group were doing worse, then it would benefit the study to say so.)  So, we have had a net increase in parental investment.  Isn't that a good thing?  Obviously, it would be a better thing if every child in the study had the highest amount of parental involvement observed, regardless of income.  And, there is a sobering reality that the parents of the children in the 10th percentile do not have the same amount of time or money to invest as those in the 90th percentile.  And, it is very bad news that in the lower deciles, real income is decreasing.  But what is the solution?

One of those quoted in the articles stresses that the difference is in parenting, not in pure income.  So, giving families more money to spend is not going to necessary result in more investment of time or money.  If this was a consequence of kids going to school without three meals a day or materials, then government can try to fix that, a la the War on Poverty.  Or, if the gap widened during K-12, then have more public investment in education in low-income schools.  But it's unclear what strategy is necessary to duplicate an existence in the upper deciles in which children are more likely to have two educated and involved parents with time to devote to modern parenting strategies and therefore show up in kindergarten at an advantage.

But in the meantime, these studies seem to strike a tone that it's lamentable that 90th percentile earners are engaging in "concerted parenting."  (For those of you wondering, 90th percentile would be a family with one BigLaw junior associate and an at-home spouse.  The tenth decile begins there and ends with Mark Zuckerberg.)  Whether we use the phrase "Tiger Mom" or "Helicopter Parent," we should applaud more engaged parenting, right? 


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