Inequality at Home: The Evolution of Class-based Gaps in Young Children’s Home Environments and Pre-school Skills from 1986 to 2012

Awarded Scholars:
Ariel Kalil, University of Chicago
Kathleen M. Ziol-Guest, New York University
Rebecca Ryan, Georgetown University
Project Date:
Jul 2014
Award Amount:

Co-funded with the Washington Center for Equitable Growth

Class-based gaps in cognitive and non-cognitive skills arise early in life and are well-entrenched by kindergarten. Since both cognitive and non-cognitive skills are linked to performance and success at each stage of the life course, invoking notions of “skills beget skills” and cumulative advantage, it is important to understand how and why such differences arise early. There are a number of reasons why rising economic inequality over the past four decades might affect these class-based gaps. First, rising inequality is associated with differential spending on children by parental economic status. Second, parents do much more than spend money on children’s development. They also provide cognitively enriching activities, emotional support and consistent discipline. There is evidence, for example, that class-based differences in the amount of time parents invest in children’s development have also increased over time. This raises the question of whether differences in home environments may play a role in explaining the skills gaps, and whether home environments, especially for disadvantaged children, are deteriorating relative to those of affluent children over time.

Professor Ariel Kalil and her colleagues Kathleen Ziol-Guest, Rebecca Ryan, Sean Reardon, and Greg Duncan will examine this issue. They suggest that there are two ways in which class-based trends in home environments could be associated with changes in skills gaps. First, economically advantaged parents could provide increasingly higher levels of cognitive stimulation and emotional support to their children relative to less advantaged parents. Second, the relationship between children’s home environments and preschool-age skills could be changing differentially over time for economically advantaged and disadvantaged children. To address these issues, Kalil and colleagues will (1) describe class-based gaps over 25 years in young children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills, (2) describe class-based gaps over 25 years in children’s home environments, and (3) assess whether changing gaps in children’s skills are a function of changing gaps in—versus changing returns from—home environments.


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