Causes of the Socioeconomic Academic Achievement Gap in the U.S.

March 5, 2019

RSF authors Bruce Bradbury (University of New South Wales), Jane Waldfogel (Columbia University), and Elizabeth Washbrook (University of Bristol) have published a new article in Demography that explores the causes of the income-related achievement gap among children in the U.S. Bradbury, Waldfogel, Washbrook, and Miles Corak are authors of the RSF book Too Many Children Left Behind (2015), which analyzes the academic achievement gap between disadvantaged American children and their more advantaged peers and finds that it is far greater in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries, with serious consequences for children’s future life outcomes.

In their new paper, Bradbury, Waldfogel, and Washbrook continue this research to examine why the socioeconomic achievement gap is so much larger in the U.S. than it is in the U.K., Australia, and Canada. Is it simply because income inequality is higher in the U.S. than it is similar countries? In their study, the authors find that the size of the achievement gap is not simply the result of unequal income distribution, but rather, is also related to non-monetary advantages that children in high-income families enjoy, relative to their middle-income peers. As the authors note, higher income parents are more likely to be married, more likely to be native-born, and are more likely to send their children to a center-based preschool, all of which are associated with better educational outcomes. Their abstract states:

Previous research has documented significantly larger income-related gaps in children's early cognitive development in the United States than in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. In this study, we investigate the extent to which this is a result of a more unequal income distribution in the United States. We show that although incomes are more unequal in the United States than elsewhere, a given difference in real income is associated with larger gaps in child test scores there than in the three other countries. In particular, high-income families in the United States appear to translate the same amount of financial resources into greater cognitive advantages relative to the middle-income group than those in the other countries studied. We compare inequalities in other kinds of family characteristics and show that higher income levels are disproportionately concentrated among families with advantageous demographic characteristics in the United States. Our results underline the fact that the same degree of income inequality can translate into different disparities in child development, depending on the distribution of other family resources.

Read the full paper in Demography.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


Join our mailing list for email updates.