Rich children and poor children are living in different worlds. What can we do about it?

May 10, 2012

Charles Murray’s recent book Coming Apart chronicles the rise of what he calls “cultural inequality” in America. In the past, rich and poor people at least liked the same things, and had the same attitudes and values. But Murray argues that the top and bottom of society have grown far apart culturally. He argues that the decline of marriage, family stability, industriousness and religiosity – and the rise of criminality – have been much greater at the bottom of society than the top.

Such changes, he argues, make it even more difficult for children growing up at the bottom to succeed: they are now being held back not just by economic factors – but also by their culture.

I haven’t had time yet to look at whether cultural inequality in the UK has been widening over time. But there certainly are big differences in the home lives of rich and poor children.

I was looking at a report on what explains the large differences in the cognitive development of rich and poor children. By the time they are 62 months old, the cognitive development of the children of the richest 20% is 16 months ahead of children from the poorest 20%.

It’s a fascinating report in its own right. But I was also struck by the annex, which presents data from the Millennium Cohort Survey.

Looking at the differences between the richest 20% of households and the poorest 20%, there are huge differences in the home lives of rich and poor children. To pick just a few examples, here are the proportions of children in rich and poor households who had particular advantages or disadvantages:

Bottom 20% v. Top 20%

Read to daily at age 3: 45% v 78%
More than 3 hours a day of TV at age 3: 27% v 5%
Sporting activity once a week at age 5: 30% v 81%
Regular bedtimes at age 3: 70% v 91%
Strictly enforced rules at 3: 42% v 57%
Child smacked at least once a month at 5: 12% v 9%
Breastfed 6 months or more: 14% v 38%
Child exposed to smoke in home at age 3: 34% v 4%
Parent used recreational drugs since birth of child: 10% v 3%
Mother obese at age 5: 19% v 9%
Mother at risk of post-natal depression 20% v 7%
Psychological distress score at 3: 4.6 v 2.3
Locus of control score: 4.5 v 5.8
Mother has problems with basic literacy/numeracy: 15% v 5%
Mother works full-time at 5: 6% v 31%

And of course on top of all these behavioural differences, there are economic ones too:

Always in social housing: 44% v 0%
Damp in home a problem at 3: 13% v 2%
No access to garden at 3: 14% v 1%
Parent behind with bills at 3: 34% v 2%

And if we were to look, instead, at more extreme examples – say the very richest and very poorest 2% – they these differences would be even bigger.

Add it all up, and these children are living in quite different social worlds. But is it the parents, the culture, and behaviour that is holding back poor kids? Or the economics? Or something else? The paper above ended up concluding that a lot of the gap is unexplained, and the research on this sort of thing is still quite limited. The whole argument is also coloured by long running political arguments.

Cultures of poverty?

Arguments about cultures of poverty and the “underclass” have a very long pedigree: Marx talked about the “Lumpenproletariat”, who were the class of drinkers, tinkers and thieves who existed even below the working class, and who he thought were too chaotic to be of much use in any revolution.

The modern debate about the underclass (not a word I particularly like) has tended to revolve around arguments that there are a group of people who are not only poor, but also behave in ways that mean they (and their children) are likely to stay poor. There’s a spectrum of views on this.

Some people on the left just hate it: they think it’s a classic right-wing, blame-the-poor distraction strategy. Owen Jones book “Chavs” seems to be an updating of this argument. Others on the left will accept that the poor may behave in self destructive ways, but see this as driven purely by their economic situation. In Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier he observes that:

When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the English-man’s opium.

In other words, yes the poor sometimes make bad decisions, but that’s just because of the economic pressures they’re under. But would reducing economic inequality on its own really improve their behaviour?

There has always been an alternative strand of thinking on the left that wanted to change the poor. Victorian reformers built our great public parks to get working class people out of pubs. Orwell wrote about how in the 1930s the “respectable” working class were literally de-loused before being moved out of their slums and into modern council houses. Post war socialists built vast council estates with no pubs, to try and dry out the poor.

New Labour reflected this more Fabian tradition when it introduced the smoking ban. More importantly, it launched and encouraged a whole series of policies which aimed to change parenting behaviours: Surestart, Family Nurse Partnerships, Family Intervention Partnerships and so on. At the time centre-right author Jill Kirby memorably criticised this agenda as the “nationalisation of childhood“.

In general these policies have been retained and built upon by the coalition. Politicians still hope that by changing behaviour they may be able to reduce the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next. Are they right?

Should we be trying to change behaviour?

In principle, I think it is a good thing to try to change the negative aspects of the culture of poor people and poor areas – if it can be done, that is.

In principle I think that people can be held down by their culture, not just their economic circumstances. Myron Magnet put it neatly in “The Dream and the Nightmare“:

“This group’s inner reality, its entire outlook on life, is distinctive, not just its economic circumstances. It faces the climb out of poverty without the internal, cultural tools you would bring to the struggle – your values, your ambitions, your perseverence, your social skills, your basic literacy and numeracy, your sene of affiliation to the wider society. In place of all this, which you would still possess even if you were stripped naked of every external advantage, the underclass is equipped with different, and sparser, mental and emotional furniture, unhelpful for taking advantage of the economic opportunities that American life offers.”

Some people on the right reject attempts to change people’s behaviour. There are a number of objections.

Some on the right think the welfare system has undermined the self-reliant culture of the poor, reducing work incentives and destabilising families. They worry that attempts to meddle with the family life of the poor will either be ineffective, or will represent unacceptable nanny-statism. They worry that the welfare system will encourage people to have children when they will then struggle to raise (the IFS found a 15% increase in births among the beneficiaries of New Labour’s early surge of welfare spending). They also fear that understanding the social origins of crime and welfarism will easily slide into excusing them. And they think that everyone can be expected to behave right: just because you had a tough childhood is no excuse.

I share some of these worries, and I don’t think a criminal is excused by their background.

But it’s also true that people’s experiences and background can make them less likely to succeed, and more likely to fail.

New experimental evidence for this proposition is piling up all the time. A neat experiment by researchers in the US showed how people who had been made to feel unpopular and unloved had less self control. In their experiment, people who were told that nobody wanted to work with them were much more likely to stuff their faces with cookies.

And that was just a mild form of rejection. What if your parents hated you? We know that children who are abused by their parents are much more likely to become abusers themselves. Orphaned children are radically more likely than children with parents to end up on the streets or in jail. W.H Auden was right that:

“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”

So the question for me is not whether we should do something about bad parenting, but whether we can.

Politicians and policy makers have spent a long time thinking about the “home learning environment” of poor children, and pushing the kind of New Labour policies mentioned above. But some researchers think politicians are just barking up the wrong tree altogether.

Judith Rich Harris has challenged the now popular idea that the home environment is all-important for children’s chances. Firstly she points out that lots of research in this area fails to control for the powerful effects of genetics, which seriously undermines its worth. She also persuasively argues that children are socialised as much by their peer group as their parents. If everything is determined by your home life, then how come the children of immigrants can often end up speaking the language of their new home perfectly, rather than the language that is still spoken at home? If she is right then the focus should shift to what happens to groups of children in school, and outside the home.

Even if the more conventional focus on the home environment is right, can government do anything about it? Even most of the people working in the field seem to think it is a hard thing to do. Policies like Surestart have been less successful than hoped. As the most recent National Evaluation of Surestart report pointed out:

“No differences emerged between the groups on 7 measures of cognitive and social development from the Foundation Stage Profile completed by teachers… It is disappointing that no effects were discerned for “school readiness” as measured by the Foundation Stage Profile.”

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is impossible to reduce the gap that already divides rich and poor children before they even start school. It just means we need to try some new approaches. And perhaps we should focus less on trying to change parents, and more on the what the children learn when they are out of the home. The expansion of pre-school education in recent years seems to have done some good. And there are already examples out there of early education schemes which have been scientifically shown to work. A report by Graham Allen MP makes a strong case that it would be better to nip social problems in the bud, rather than spend a fortune cleaning up the consequences later.

The coalition has no money to roll out some big new national programme right now. And even if it did have lots of cash to spend, it would be a mistake to start sloshing it about until we are clearer about what actually works. The government should use this period to pilot and evaluate a range of programmes, aimed at reducing the gulf between rich and poor children. We don’t know how to reduce the gap yet, but a concerted attempt to find out would at least signal the government’s intent.

Listening to people in focus groups talking about the broken society, I’ve been struck by the way that people flip between hostility and explanation: they have tough views on crime and welfarism, but also see its social origins (“its kids raising kids” … “they don’t know any better”). To coin a phrase, they want politicians to be tough on the broken society, but also tough on the causes of the broken society. For politicians, figuring out exactly how to do that is the difficult bit.

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