Researcher: 'Opportunity Gap' Likely To Keep Growing

May 18, 2015

New Hampshire has one of the lowest poverty rates in the country, but overall, the gap between the wealthy and the poor is growing. Researchers at the Carsey School of Public Policy in New Hampshire have been looking at the effect this income disparity has on children and their success or failure later in life. Vulnerable Families Research Associate Andrew Schaefer spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

Before we dive into the specific areas of your research, could you give us the broad view of the trend toward inequality in New Hampshire, and what that means for young children?

On the whole, we’ve found that while children in New Hampshire are somewhat better off than those across the nation, New Hampshire still has a growing trend in inequality in terms of poverty and family income, where low-income children and poor children are on the rise after decades of decline and income is pretty much all but stagnated for those in lower income groups in the past 50 years, but it has actually increased for families in higher income groups. This means that more and more, there is this likely growing gap in outcomes between worse- and better-off children in New Hampshire.

What do you mean when you say outcomes?

Outcomes are things like: better educational attainment, better labor force participation when these children reach adulthood, but also other things like health outcomes and just general quality of life outcomes for children in the future. And also things like test scores. Just general educational excellence, so their ability to excel in educational institutions and in the labor market.

Broadly speaking, how would you describe the differences in kids’ experiences between high- and low-income families?

The differences are largely about opportunity. Children from better-off families tend to go to school at better places and they have access to the kinds of programs and mentors that foster future success in both academics and the labor market. And children from lower income families, they tend to have less access to these resources, which leaves them at a disadvantage. There are long-term negative consequences of growing up poor, including lower educational attainment, and lower labor force attachment, but also they tend to have worse health in the future, which is a particularly pernicious problem.

Is this gap between the wealthy and poor families growing faster in some areas?

Across New Hampshire, we do see some evidence that there are certain pockets of places in New Hampshire that are worse off than others, for example, percentage-wise, children are more likely to be poor in the more rural new Hampshire places like Coos County, and less likely to be poor in more suburban places. That said, most of New Hampshire’s children live in suburban areas. So the vast majority of New Hampshire’s poor children and low-income families, they live in the suburbs.

What trends do we see among single mothers in the state?

We know that children of single mothers are worse off for a number of reasons, but mostly because single moms are more likely to be poor, and single parents in general just have fewer resources, like time to devote to their children. In our study, one of the things that we looked at was gaps in educational attainment for single parent families. What we found was that about half the kids whose parents’ highest level of education was a high school degree or less, live in single-parent families, compared to about ten percent of kids whose parents’ highest level of education is a bachelor’s degree or more. So while most people know that we’ve seen this increase in single-parent families in the past 50 years, it’s less well-known that much of this increase has been among the lower-educated families.

Do you see the gap between wealthy and poor kids getting bigger?

It’s hard to predict the future obviously but kind of the consistency of the trends that we’ve found, consistency within the nation as a whole, but also across each of the 50 states, most of the state-by-state figures look almost identical to the New Hampshire figures in terms of the pattern. And that indicates to me that there’s likely going to be continued growth in these inequality gaps, which is problematic for obvious reasons because it brings up questions about the legitimacy of our economic system and the government and their collective ability to address these systemic issues, which leads me to think that there’s some need for a policy intervention aimed at helping not just poor families, especially those with children, and the policy is needed to bridge these growing gaps. And without some intervention in educational institutions, poor children in New Hampshire’s public schools will continue to fall behind.

What would that policy look like?

I think it would be an educational policy that doesn’t just look at New Hampshire as a whole and have a one-size-fits-all approach to fixing education systems, but one that realizes that New Hampshire children have varying experiences and outcomes depending on where they live and depending on the types of communities they’re part of and the school districts that they go to and realizing that policies that can help children living in New Hampshire’s cities like Manchester and Nashua might not be the same policies that could help kids in Coos County.