Parenting and Poverty: A Behavioral View

Jul 1, 2012 in Blog

In his conversation with Glenn Loury, Sendhil Mullainathan touched on the stresses of parenting. But how does poverty affect all this? Is there reason to believe that a harried single mother who is also poor will have an even harder time doing the things needed for her child to do well than a harried single mother on a comfortable income?

In a piece written for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s 2011 Annual Report (which you can download here), Sendhil and Saugato Datta explore this controversial question.

They write:

“There is no formula for how to raise children well, and likely there never will be. Yet the science does tell us how not to raise children. Don’t be inattentive. Don’t be inconsistent. Don’t be disengaged. Don’t place them in intellectually pallid environments. The science doesn’t just agree on what not to do. Sadly it agrees on something else: low-income parents are much more likely to do these things. We know children born to low-income families do poorly on average. And one culprit seems to be the behavior of low-income parents.”

That is a strong statement, which they go on to explain in this way: it’s not about the money, or even the material stuff money buys. Rather, it’s about psychic resources:

“Good parenting requires psychic resources. Complex decisions must be made. Sacrifices must be made in the moment. This is hard for anyone, whatever their income: we all have limited reserves of self-control, and attention and other psychic resources.”

Low-income parents, however, also face a tax on their psychic resources. Many things that are trifling and routine to the well-off give sleepless nights to those less fortunate. To take a simple example, everyone may face the same bank overdraft fees – but steering clear of them is pretty easy for the well off, while for the poor it requires constant attention, steely reserve and enormous amounts of self-control. For the well off, monthly bills are automatically deducted and there is still some slack left over. For those with less income, finding ways to ensure that rent, utilities and phone bills are paid for out of small, irregular paychecks is an act of complicated financial jugglery.

In other words, stress can make you look like a “bad parent” when it strikes. The problem is that the kind of psychic stress that occasionally bedevils the lives of richer folk is something of a constant for poorer people. The moral of the story is thus that it takes freedom of mind to be a good parent – and that is a luxury low-income parents often cannot afford. In other words, it is the stresses that poverty creates – and not something about poor parents’ personalities, or even the things they cannot buy – that lead poorer parents to do less of the things that are thought to constitute good parenting. The key thing money “buys” you in this regard is peace of mind.

You can read some of the thought-provoking discussion that this piece led to on the World Bank’s Development Impact blog (here) and on the New York Times’s Economix blog (here).