Millennials are just this screwed: The next generation will not do as well as their parents

Income inequality is dramatically reshaping opportunities available to middle-class kids — and it's getting worse

Published May 24, 2014 2:45PM (EDT)

Jennifer Aniston in "Office Space"
Jennifer Aniston in "Office Space"

Excerpted from "Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family"

When the two of us applied to college, we walked into the SATs without having gone through intensive SAT prep or having read any books on how to ace college testing. We received very little college counseling, and decided on our list of schools by ourselves. We then each wrote our own college essays, and we didn’t share them with anyone other than the college admission counselors. Thirty years later, our five children all took some form of SAT prep tutoring. We spent lots of time reviewing their choices of colleges and then even more time reviewing their college applications. Naomi even hired college coaches to help steer her children through the process. June relied on an undergraduate professor friend who had just navigated her own children through the process. We both found the experience daunting.

In late 2012, New York Times journalist Jason DeParle documented what happened to three women who graduated from the same high school, one of the few in Texas ranked “academically unacceptable.” Angelica, whose mother became a citizen after illegally immigrating from Mexico and acknowledged that her daughter essentially raised herself, enrolled in Emory University; a second became a freshman at Texas State University; and the third began her studies at a community college. But, four years later, none “has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, earns just above minimum wage in a Galveston furniture store.”

In contrast, most of our friends’ children who started college finished, though many only after intensive parental involvement arranging a switch of majors when the children, like Angelica, hit a rough patch academically, needed a semester in rehab, or simply had trouble leaving home or breaking up with a high school sweetheart. The new generation of “helicopter” parents does not let go, as our parents did, when children go off to college. Instead, one of our children chastised us because, unlike some other parents, we did not call every day by cellphone, and another felt betrayed when we suggested that he could figure out how to get from the airport to campus without a fifty-dollar cab ride.

The change in families is not just a change in family form. It’s a change in the quality and quantity of resources available to children that is associated with family income. The results affect children’s stimulation and cognitive development in early childhood, their attachment to and support from the adults in their lives, their feelings of trust and isolation, and their school achievement and community participation. A half-century ago, society marginalized a small group at the bottom that included many African Americans, the rural and urban poor, and other isolated communities. Today, the destruction of community and familial bonds affects a much larger portion of American society and increases the gaps between the top, the middle, and the bottom. The result is the reproduction of class through its impact on children from their first days of life.

Let’s look at the numbers. Poor children have access to fewer resources at home and at school, and the effects show. In 1960, the gaps in reading and math test scores among whites of different classes were comparatively small, whereas the gap between blacks and whites was huge. That relationship has changed. Sean Reardon of Stanford University describes this as the “income achievement gap.” He looks at test scores from children at the ninetieth percentile of the income distribution and from the tenth percentile and measures the differences. These class-based differences have grown steadily since the late seventies, increasing in each passing decade. So, too, have the gaps among African Americans and Latinos of different classes, though not to the same degree as whites—who have dramatically more wealth at the top of the income ladder. In contrast, racial differences fell substantially between 1950 and the early 1980s. Today, Reardon’s income achievement gap is nearly twice as large as the black-white achievement gap and is 30 to 40 percent higher than it was twenty-five years ago. While racial differences persist, class has become the big story in looking at differences in children’s educational achievement.

Over the past decade, researchers gained greater insight into the sources of some of these differences. A study published in 2013 indicated that differences in cognitive performance associated with socioeconomic levels appear in children as early as eighteen months and found a six-month gap in both vocabulary learning and language processing efficiency at age two. Researchers have long been aware of differences in vocabulary; by age three, for example, children from higher socioeconomic status (SES) families had twice the vocabularies of children from lower SES backgrounds. The newest studies measure not just vocabulary, but processing speed—the amount of time a child takes to recognize a familiar word. These studies find a similar correlation between parents’ socioeconomic status and children’s speed, which predicts the rate of subsequent language acquisition. Both factors have long-term consequences that correlate with adult performance.

A major source of the differences is the quality of the children’s early language environments. Wealthier and better educated parents engaged in dramatically more child-directed speech, providing a more interactive and cognitively stimulating environment, though other factors, such as adequate nutrition, the presence of lead, or parental stress, may contribute. While bad schools can make the differences worse, good schools do not close the gap. So whatever is taking place affects early childhood development. Trips to Europe and SAT tutors may enhance elite children’s preparation for college, but they do not explain differences in cognitive achievement. The Head Start program focused on the pre-school years because that is where the largest differences in educational achievement begin—with lifelong consequences.

Reardon further acknowledges that parents’ education makes a difference, but it cannot explain what has changed over the past half century. Both in 1960 and 2000, if you wanted to predict how children will do on math and reading tests, you could look at their parents’ education. In every decade, the children of engineers do better than the children of carpenters. What has changed is the effect of income. In 1960, the children of a college graduate executive who made $80,000 a year did not do much better than a college graduate teacher who made $20,000 a year. Today the gap between the children of an executive making $200,000 a year and a teacher with the same education making $50,000 a year has increased.

Nor can the gaps be explained by greater income inequality between the bottom and the top in some abstract sense. While the income differences between the middle and the bottom increased during this period, these changes had little effect on children’s test scores. The big changes came from increased income inequality in the top half—the gap between the ninetieth and fiftieth percentiles. Ultra-high-income parents are doing something different that affects how their children perform. Tiger mothers like Yale Law professor Amy Chua, an admitted outlier even among high-status parents, really have discovered secrets that allow their children to outperform everyone else. Reardon suggests that high-income parents must somehow be changing how they invest in their children’s cognitive development.

Reardon’s description matches up with what we have been describing throughout this book. The new upper-middle-class model has enormous payoffs for children—payoffs that re-create class identity. Upper-middle-class parents are more likely to raise children within two-parent families, and both mothers and fathers spend more time with their children than their parents did. These well-off parents, who spend substantial sums on cleaning crews and energy-efficient washers and dryers, devote increasing amounts of their own time and that of carefully selected high-quality nannies, preschool teachers, tutors, sports trainers, and camp counselors to creating activities that stimulate their children’s cognitive environment. Well-off families have remade the use of parental energies to invest ever more in children even with two parents in the workforce.

Consider the results of studies that measure the amount of “developmental time” parents spend interacting with their children. They have tried to capture the change in the minutes per day parents spend reading to their children, playing with them, or taking them to sports practice, the library, and ballet lessons. In the sixties and seventies, these results did not vary much by class. High school–graduate mothers spent four minutes a day more than college-graduate mothers in activities that contributed to their children’s development. The college-graduate dads spent a bit more time than the high school– graduate dads, canceling out the differences among the mothers. Starting in the eighties, both groups began to spend much more time with their children, but the college graduates’ increase was more dramatic. By 2010, the differences had grown from a few minutes to more than an hour a day. The younger the child, the greater the differences in parenting time by parents’ education had become. College-graduate parents have become much more likely than parents with only a high school education to play patty cake with their toddlers. Perhaps reflecting these differences, a 2013 study found that parents who have attended college felt more confident about their parenting than those who have never attended college.

The same disparities are reflected in differences on spending on children. The parents with the most money seek out camps that reinforce foreign language skills, personal trainers who work on Little League techniques, and vacations with their children that range from the Bahamas to the Himalayas. In the seventies, the top-income quartile spent about three times as much as the bottom-income quartile on such activities for their children. Today, it spends nine times as much. In our childhood, working-class and middle-class kids both went to camps and attended after-school activities in their neighborhoods. In the middle-class neighborhoods, the camps might cost a little more and have nicer buses and fancier t-shirts, but the activities were not all that different. Today, the advantages that start in toddlerhood only increase over time. In researching this book, we spoke to an investment banker friend who described the thousands of dollars he spent on tutors, after-school activities, family trips to Nepal, college application coaches, and a private school that made sure all of the teachers’ letters of recommendations were in by the end of August. In the public schools that some of our children attended, an overworked guidance counselor was in charge of the process for hundreds of students, many of whom she had never met.

These differences reflect the ability of the upper middle class to combine workforce participation, which increases the family’s resources, with active parenting. In 1970, of mothers with young children, 18 percent of mothers with the most education and 12 percent of mothers with the least education worked outside the home. That difference may well have accounted for the fact that high school–graduate mothers spent a few minutes more per day on their children than did college-graduate mothers. By 2000, 65 percent of the more-educated group worked outside the home, but only 30 percent of the least-educated mothers also participated in the labor market. Yet, the more-educated working mothers have increased the time they spend on their children, in part because they no longer also cook dinner, mop the floors, and do the laundry but also in part because they are older and more mature. As Princeton professor Sara McLanahan explains,

Children who were born to mothers from the most-advantaged backgrounds are making substantial gains in resources. Relative to their counterparts 40 years ago, their mothers are more mature and more likely to be working at well-paying jobs. These children were born into stable unions and are spending more time with their fathers. In contrast, children born to mothers from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are making smaller gains and, in some instances, even losing parental resources. Their mothers are working at low-paying jobs. Their parents’ relationships are unstable, and for many, support from their biological fathers is minimal.

These advantages create feedback loops. The children of women who have a college degree wait to have children until they have assembled the resources that allow them to devote considerable time, money, and attention to their children. The mothers themselves are older and more mature. They are more likely to have jobs that make it easier to combine work and family. Their mature families also are more stable. Working-class women, in contrast, who grow up with less supervision and fewer opportunities, are more likely to become pregnant in their late teens or early twenties, less likely to give birth within marriage, and less likely to respond to an unplanned pregnancy with an abortion. The result builds in greater parental stress from the child’s birth.

Sociologists further find that greater income segregation and the community stress that occurs with economic decline affect children’s performance. They have discovered, for example, that a higher percentage of children in poor communities have trouble not just with academic but also with attention skills. These children are also more likely to engage in disruptive behavior that affects the academic environment for their classmates. Other studies indicate that community-level events, such as a plant closing or a regional economic downturn, reduce test scores and increase disciplinary problems for children attending public schools in those counties, and the effects occur more quickly for children from lower socioeconomic status families than for their wealthier peers. The worsening problems affect even those children in the same communities whose parents remain employed. Economic decline itself further reduces the resources available for the public schools in these neighborhoods and often increases teacher turnover. Yet researchers find that individual factors, such as budget cuts, have relatively little impact on student performance. Instead, they suggest that “increased stress in families is the primary mechanism through which community job losses influence children’s reading and mathematics achievements.”

The consequence is not just a divergence in test scores and an end to social mobility. The results of these changes affect basic participation in society. Our college classmates used to talk about the division between the “jocks” and the “brains” in public high schools. The jocks tended to be the guys from working-class neighborhoods; the brains were the children of the suburbs. The jocks dominated the sports teams; the brains led the debate squad. Between 1992 and 2004, however, high school seniors from the bottom income quartile had become significantly less likely to be on high school athletic teams, much less to play a leadership role. The highest income quartile increased their participation over the same period, snaring a higher percentage of sports’ team captainships. The same thing happened to after-school music, dance, and art classes. Wealthy tenth graders became more likely to participate; the bottom quarter of high school students stopped going to these activities. Even church attendance reflects the growing class disparities. In the seventies and eighties, church attendance dropped, and it did so in roughly the same proportion for all children. But beginning in 1990, the children of the most-educated third of the couples began to go to church again. Over the next decade, church attendance for this group stabilized. For the bottom third, on the other hand, the decline in attendance accelerated. Greater economic inequality has made the top group better off while depleting the resources of parents in the middle of the economy, with ripple effects on the well-being and civic engagement of the next generation.

Some of the class differences reflect long-standing cultural divisions about the proper way to raise children. In Unequal Childhoods and follow-up studies, sociologist Annette Lareau followed a dozen families for about a month, studying their parenting habits. Affluent families, both black and white, engage in what she labels “concerted cultivation,” and children are constantly busy with soccer practice, piano lessons, tutoring, and other activities. By contrast, working-class and poor families rely on strategies that encourage “the accomplishment of natural growth” in which a child’s development occurs spontaneously. Parents don’t chauffeur their children to their carefully planned birthday parties, sports practices, or play dates. Instead, children are responsible for finding their own activities. The overscheduled middle-class children experience more stress; they are often afraid to disappoint parental expectations. The working-class children are more independent and feel less entitled. Yet they lack advocates who help them navigate complicated institutions. A run-in with a police officer is more likely to result in a conviction on the record than a diversion program for a working-class teen. With a lawyer, a first offense can be expunged from the record; without a lawyer, a teen is unlikely ever to have heard the term.

The same thing is true of school attendance and completion. Too many cuts in high school may mean no degree for the working-class teen while upper-middle-class parents negotiate make-up assignments directly with the principal.Upper-middle-class parents today may hire college application counselors to help with selecting a school, writing applications, and making sure their child gets in. The counselors can help find SAT tutors, provide tips on making sure that harried high school teachers get in the required recommendations, and help craft effective college essays. Working-class students may be largely on their own. Although the rates of college attendance have increased for all income groups over the past forty years, the gap in attendance rates between those at the lowest and highest incomes has remained the same. Unsurprisingly, socioeconomic status correlates not only with college attendance but also with a student’s choice of colleges. Students from working-class backgrounds who qualify for admission to selective institutions are much more likely than middle-class students admitted to the same schools to enroll in less selective four-year colleges or in two-year colleges or to not attend at all. It has become significantly harder to manage college applications and financing without parental involvement, and recent state budget cuts are rapidly pushing tuition at what had been affordable state universities beyond the reach of an increasingly larger portion of the population.

These results magnify class differences. Students in the highest income quartile are 23 percent more likely than students in the lowest income quartile to graduate from high school. The desire to go to college does not differ by race or class, but attendance and graduation do. Two-thirds of those students in the upper quarter of the income distribution with at least one college-graduate parent earn a university degree. In comparison, only 9 percent of those in the bottom quarter who would have been the first in their families to do so finish college.

Two generations ago, these class-based differences in culture existed. But the differences in absolute terms were less, and they did not prevent the United States from becoming one of the best educated and prosperous societies in the world. Today, the interaction of cultural differences with family and economic changes means that children are likely to face even greater inequality in the distribution of resources than their parents, lowering the overall human capital of the next generation. The strength of the United States—and of democracies more generally—has long been associated with the strength of the middle class. The class-based nature of recent changes in family structure, together with the lack of alternative ways to channel resources to children, threaten the well-being of the middle class in the United States and risk creating a large and unbridgeable gulf between those who can continue to realize the benefits of college education and well-paying, skilled positions and those who, even if they graduate from high school, community college, or technical programs, may continue to see their living standards erode.

This analysis suggests a reinforcing cycle: greater inequality increases the class-based differences in family form, which in turn amplify class-based differences in the cognitive performance of the next generation, which in turn increase overall wage inequality. The result reduces the total, not just the relative, human capital investment in future Americans. Community well-being produces synergistically positive effects; with greater inequality and the disappearance of jobs, we are seeing the destruction of communities and the people within them. The next generation will not do as well as their parents.

Excerpted from "Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family" by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn. Published by Oxford University Press. Copyright 2014 June Carbone and Naomi Cahn. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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