Enduring Inequality and Early Childhood Well-Being in Memphis

As 2010 comes to a close, it is a good time to pause and reflect on the stack of reports released over the past year that comment on the well-being of children, and ask how these studies apply to Memphis, particularly in terms of what they can tell us about early childhood brain development, and the lifetime well-being of our youngest children. Collectively, these studies suggest that now is the time for a new focus, one that we might call the Noah Principal: It's time to shift our focus away from dire predictions of the crisis facing our children, and toward identifying the arks in our community that help to protect our children from crisis.

Certainly, we must first understand where we stand in terms of the well-being of our children. Until we know where we stand, we can't move toward the future we prefer: a future where our community is safe, where our homes hold their value, where we see wisdom in our public expenditures, where schools offer excellent educations, where all children develop to their full capacity and thrive, where successive generations are educated, productive, and engaged citizens, and where our community continues to prosper.

A number of studies released this past year help point the way to progress on each of these dimensions. At the same time, they also show that we have much work to do before we reach that future.

Inequality Matters

UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre issued The Children Left Behind, which examines the relationship between income inequality and child well-being in the world’s richest nations. By focusing on the world’s richest nations, the report is able to comment on the relationship between inequality within a society and overall measures of child well-being. And there are striking differences in distance these nations allow their poorest children (the poorest 10 percent) to fall behind their middle income peers.

A handful of (mostly northern European) countries allow only small gaps in well-being between middle income and poor children. In these countries, regardless of the family into which they are born, children are likely to face roughly similar opportunities in life. In contrast, other nations tolerate much greater gaps between middle-income and poor children. In these societies, children born into poor families face starkly different opportunities than children born into middle-income families. Among the 25 richest countries, the United States, Greece and Italy tolerate the largest gaps between middle-income and poor children.

Do large gaps in income really matter? It turns out that inequality within societies and communities makes a tremendous difference for how children fare. The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, assesses reams of cross-national and cross-U.S. state-level data to evaluate the relationship between economic inequality within societies and how the states perform on a broad range of health, educational and social outcomes. Their findings are definitive: past a modest level of economic development (about $25,000 income per person), greater equality within a society is a far better predictor of that society’s health, education, and community well-being (measured, for example, in levels of safety or trust), than is continued economic growth. In other words, people live longer, healthier, more productive, and even happier, lives in societies characterized by greater equality.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s observations, coupled with the UNICEF findings, tell us that societies characterized by the largest gaps between middle-income and poor children are much more likely to fall prey to poor overall outcomes, regardless of high levels of average income.

This is a key issue in Memphis where more than half of children are born into families living in poverty. But speaking of poverty in this way actually clouds the true distance between middle class and poor children in our community. The majority of children born into poverty in Memphis are actually born to families living far below the federal poverty line. A recent analysis by the Urban Child Institute, the Class of 2025, finds that 85% of children born into poverty in Memphis actually are born into families in dire poverty – meaning they are surviving on roughly $10,000 a year (about half the federal poverty line for a family of four).

Wilkinson and Pickett confirm the findings of another recent report from the Every Child Matters Education Fund: In the U.S., Geography Matters, when it comes to child well-being. How does Tennessee fare on these comparisons? Not so well. According to Geography Matters, when compared to a child in one of the ten most egalitarian states, a child born in Tennessee is twice as likely to grow up in poverty, 70% more likely to die before their first birthday, and twice as likely to become a teen parent.

Children Are Especially Sensitive to Poverty in Early Childhood

Another key study released this year focus on the negative lifelong effects of exposure to poverty in early childhood. Greg Duncan and his collaborators followed 30,000 Americans for more than 30 years in order to evaluate the relationship between poverty at different points in childhood and later academic success and life outcomes. Their findings confirm what we’ ve long suspected: poverty in early childhood (specifically from the prenatal year through age five) is strongly associated with negative adult outcomes.

How much of a difference does it make? Compared to children who grew up in middle-class families, children who spent their early years in poverty completed two fewer years of school. As adults, they worked an average of 451 fewer hours each year; they received $826 more in food stamps each year; and were 3-times more likely to be in poor health. Poor males in this group had double the risk of having been arrested, and poor females were five-times as likely to become unmarried parents before age 21.

Taken as a whole, these studies suggest that there are two realities for children in American society: half of our children will start life in middle-class families, equipped with the time, resources, and knowledge to support their early childhood development. The other half of our children grow up in a far different America, where families are particularly vulnerable to erratic incomes, family turmoil, and residential transience. Children born into these families are at far greater risk for poor developmental outcomes, and later difficulties in school and life.

The Continuing Significance of Race

Certainly the demographics of Memphis are changing, with individual schools and neighborhoods receiving growing Hispanic, Southeast Asian, and African populations. But economic class in our city remains closely bound to race, and African American children and families face much higher rates of poverty than Whites. In fact, 92% of children born into dire poverty in Memphis are African American.

That race remains a significant dimension of child well-being is brought home by A Call for Change, a recent report from Council of the Great City Schools. The report finds that Black children are three times more likely than white children to live in single-parent homes, and they are twice as likely to live in a home where no parent has full-time, year-round employment.

Marriage May Be a Luxury of The Well-Off

A number of other studies have appeared this year looking at the “marriage gap” in America. As W. Bradford Wilcox argues in When Marriage Disappears, over the last 30 years, the proportion of children born outside of marriage has skyrocketed. But the rate of increase has been the smallest among the well-off (the 30% of Americans with a college degree or higher). In this group, only 6% of children are born outside of marriage. By comparison, rates of childbirth outside of marriage are highest among the poor and among African Americans. Today, close to 70% of Black babies are born out of wedlock.

What explains the marked decline in rates of marriage among African Americans? A recent examination by Kerwin Kofi Charles and Ming Ching Luoh, entitled “Male Incarceration, Marriage Outcomes, and Female Outcomes,” suggests the decline in marriage is a result of much harsher U.S. sentencing rules for non-violent crimes. Charles and Luoh find that every one percent increase in male incarceration brings a 2.4-point reduction in the proportion of women who will ever marry. This relationship makes a profound difference in America, where similar crimes are met with much harsher penalties than in other rich countries. The social effects of this disparity are particularly troubling for the African American community, when one of every nine black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is behind bars.

Charting the Way Forward

Do all of these studies simply pile on the bad news when it comes to the well-being of the youngest Memphians? Or worse, do they cloak the very real suffering of children and families behind sociological, economic and psychological explanations? As Ralph Ellison cautioned in 1944, it is all too easy for social science to offer “scientific” justification for anti-democratic and unscientific attitudes and practices. 

Certainly, in order to move toward the community we would choose to become, we need to truthfully recognize the community that we are today. In Memphis today, too many young children start life at a disadvantage, living in economic poverty and social isolation, in families made fragile by poverty and ignorance, and where chaotic early childhoods have lasting developmental implications, not only for subsequent generations, but also for the community we will become.

But if these recent studies underscore the effects of inequality on child and community well-being, they also suggest a way forward. Collectively, the lessons from this past year tell us that to move forward as a community we must:

First – acknowledge the real differences in the opportunities available to our youngest children, and the lasting implications of these differences.

Second – understand the full range of ways that the fates of our own children are linked to those of children across town – Black and White, middle-class and poor.

Third – move beyond a focus on the long odds that confront our kids, and instead begin to focus on the very real organizations and experiences in Memphis that safely steer our children through early childhood, leading to successful school readiness, academic success, and lifetime well-being. These are the arks that will help to carry our children safely through the storm.

References: 

Council of the Great City Schools. 2010. A Call for Change

Duncan, Greg., Kathleen Ziol-Guest, and Ariel Kalil. 2010. 'Early-Childhood Poverty and Adult Attainment, Behavior, and Health.' Child Development. 81 (1): 306-325.

Ralph Ellison. 1944. An American Dilemma: A Review.

Every Child Matters Education Fund. 2009. Geography Matters.

Kerwin Kofi Charles and Ming Ching Luoh. 2010.  Male Incarceration, Marriage Outcomes, and Female Outcomes

UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre. The Children Left Behind

The Urban Child Institute. 2010. Class of 2025.

Wilcox, W. Bradford. 2010.  When Marriage Disappears

Wilkinson, Richard and Kate Pickett. 2010. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

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