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Unequal From Birth: How Inequality Starts Early And What We Can Do About It

Innovative new programs are aimed at fixing the achievement gap before kids even start school.

Unequal From Birth: How Inequality Starts Early And What We Can Do About It
[Illustration: Hanna Barczyk for Fast Company]

During the War on Poverty of the 1960s, two education researchers from the University of Kansas were working in schools to improve kids’ language skills. They were on the front lines of an optimistic effort to put poor kids in pre-school on a better educational track. But over time they realized their efforts were unsuccessful at moving the needle. Frustrated, Betty Hart and Todd Risley decided they needed to look at the children earlier in life.

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Every month, they would spend time observing 42 families of different incomes as their babies grew up, from an age of seven months to three years. Their results were both troubling and ground breaking. The poorer the family, the fewer words and positive “affirmations” the child heard during this crucial time of brain development. By age four, they estimated from their data, a child whose family was on welfare would have heard 32 million fewer words than a peer from a richer family.

“Eighty five percent of the brain develops in the first three years. Words are like food for the brain. It’s all about the language and interaction children get with the parent,” says Dana Suskind, a Chicago pediatric surgeon who is founder and director of the Thirty Million Words initiative, a series of interventions to overcome this word gap.

This study is just one example of how inequality begins at home. It begins with how babies are fed, how they’re nurtured, how mothers talk to them, and really with the many, many things that do and don’t happen in people’s houses around kids. Everything matters to a child’s development, so everything affects the level of development homes of different incomes are able to offer.

At the moment, it’s pretty clear that kids from poor homes start at a disadvantage. According to the Brookings Institution, a little less than half of poor children are ready for school at age five, compared to 75% of children from families on moderate and high incomes. Whether it’s simple poverty, or “bad parenting,” it’s clear that different things are happening in the respective homes that begin to explain long-term inequality patterns. The same paper points out that two out of three children born into families in the bottom-fifth of the income bracket remain in the bottom two-fifths in their adult life.

These sort of statistics have created huge interest in pre-school interventions recently. Whether it’s parenting courses, nurse visits, language development, or proposals for universal pre-school programs, there’s a feeling that early interventions could reap super-sized benefits, and that this area is currently a missed opportunity. Today, the U.S. spends much less early childhood than public education, and relatively little compared to other rich countries.

“Much of the discussion focuses on the K-1-2, when the truth is the achievement gap begins before a child steps into the classroom or a child takes their first steps,” says Suskind.

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Recent research on early childhood certainly backs the case for something like free, government-funded universal pre-K. In particular, Nobel Laureate James Heckman, a professor at the University of Chicago, has consistently argued that investing as early as possible in disadvantaged children brings the highest social returns ($7 or $8 for every $1). “Starting at age three or four is too late, as it fails to recognize that skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way,” he says.

Heckman has shown that universal pre-K could boost college enrollment among children of poor families by 6.7% to 9.5%–estimates that are probably conservative, he says. It could also boost wages and reduce the number of people falling below a certain socioeconomic level, his paper, written with Lakshmi Raut, claims.

A long-term study of a pre-school program in Ypsilanti, Michigan, shows more concretely how kids could benefit. Following 123 “high risk” students since the 1960s, it finds those who had pre-school were more likely to do their homework, graduate, and earn a decent wage. They were also less likely to go to jail. “All young children living in low-income families should have access to preschool programs,” said the researchers behind the experiment.

But no amount of schooling can completely correct for how parents interact with their child at home. Richer parents display more “optimal parenting behaviors,” says Ariel Kalil, a professor at the University of Chicago, including greater language stimulation, more sensitive and responsive mother-child interactions, and greater levels of parental management.

Language stimulation is a particularly interesting area. Suskind has just published a book and is rolling out various projects through her Thirty Million Words Initiative, which works with parents to talk effectively with their kids. These include a pilot with 200 families in Chicago in which outreach workers will visit parents at home and train them to “tune in,” “talk more,” and “take turns” with their kids.

“It’s not just about the number of words,” Suskind stresses. “It’s growing not only IQ and vocabulary, but also [mathematical] ability and spatial ability, and non-cognitive ability, for example around behavior and self-regulation. All of it relates to the interaction they have with their parents.”

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The city of Providence, Rhode Island, has recently started the biggest early language development program in the country (see an excellent profile of the program here). Like Suskind, it’s using small recording devices to follow how parents and children talk to each other, and it’s developing ways to improve communication. The device allows parents to set goals for interacting and talking with their children more often.

At the same time, Thirty Million Words is also working with nurses, who see mothers and babies early and can pass on the “word gap” message. It has programs at a museum and library in Chicago as well. “My dream is taking one city and having all these interventions overlay,” Suskind says. “I don’t think hearing [the message] once time is enough. To scale, you really need to get it into the groundwater.”

It’s too early to say whether these word count-boosting programs will work. Providence has yet to report results and Suskind’s pilots haven’t started yet. And, because we’re talking early child development, it could be years before we really know what’s effective. Still, striking early to even up people’s life chances seems like a good idea. Indeed, there may be more bang-for-buck in the early years than the later ones.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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