This research project was funded by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship. The overall aim of the project was to compare the relationship between family socio-economic background and developmental outcomes in early childhood among recent generations in the UK and the US. The first hypothesis explored was whether children born into lower income families in the UK experience fewer disadvantages in terms of their health, socio-emotional and cognitive development than their low income counterparts in the US. As the UK spends substantially more on early childhood services than the US, this analysis provides a test of whether greater state involvement helps to promote an ‘equal start in life’ for children from different backgrounds. The second strand of the research looked in more detail at the mechanisms through which family background influences child development. Low income children may suffer because they are less likely to attend high-quality preschools; because they are raised in less learning-focused environments; or for a variety of other reasons. Understanding which factors matter most is crucial for designing effective interventions to promote social mobility.
A number of key findings emerged from the research. First, it proved difficult to find evidence that British children born into poverty were any more protected than their US counterparts. Differences between rich and poor in number and letter skills, physical outcomes like birth weight, and behavioural problems such as hyperactivity and aggression were remarkably similar across the two countries. In fact, the greatest difference between the two countries was found at the opposite end of the income distribution. The richest children in the US seem to ‘pull away’ from middle-income children with extremely advantageous development outcomes, while the outcomes of middle- and high-income children in the UK tend to be more equal.
Striking similarities between the two countries also emerged in terms of the mechanisms underpinning the deficits of low-income children. The research identifies parenting behaviours (broadly defined) as one of the key influences that differ strongly between low- and higher-income families. For example, low income parents exhibit less sensitivity and nurturance when interacting which their children, read to them less frequently and are less likely to set regular routines such as bedtimes and mealtimes. Each of these factors is then associated with poorer school readiness skills. On the hand, I find little evidence that differences in preschool attendance or child care experiences between rich and poor contribute to developmental inequalities. Caution is needed here, as the available data on child care are relatively weak, but the finding does raise questions about policy focused on early education programmes as a way of improving the outcomes of poor children.