Poor parents? – Andrew Leigh on poverty and the family

Battlers and Billionaires

"For too long, progressives have been scared off issues of family structure and parenting by a fear of being misinterpreted as blaming some of the hardest-working people in society", says Andrew Leigh. But for many of today’s progressives, raising issues about single parenthood and parenting seems to be a lot less frightening than the prospect of increasing income support payments.

In his new book, Battlers and Billionaires, Leigh argues that we need to think seriously about what happens inside families if we want to reduce poverty and increase mobility.

Drawing on evidence from Australia and the US he argues that children from disadvantaged families suffer from more than lack of income. Even before they have reached school age, children from disadvantaged families are likely to be behind their peers.

One of the researchers he draws on is American sociologist Annette Lareau. Lareau argues that inequality is about much more than wealth and income. Middle class families have a different way of raising children from working class and poor families. In her book Unequal Childhoods, she writes: "For working-class and poor families, the cultural logic of child rearing at home is out of synch with the standards of institutions."

Middle parents are more likely to practice a kind of parenting Lareau calls ‘concerted cultivation‘ – a parenting style that gives children a sense of entitlement and teaches them to question adults and address them as relative equals. Middle class parents are more likely to reason with their children rather than simply telling them what to do. Parents will also challenge institutions like schools on behalf of their children. And they fill their childrens’ time with structured activities like sport and music lessons.

Working class and poor children are more likely to end up feeling distrustful and constrained by institutions. Their parents are more likely to allow them to organise their own leisure time and less likely to encourage them to question or challenge adults.

Another researcher Leigh draws on is sociologist Susan Mayer. In her 1997 book What Money Can’t Buy: Family Income and Children’s Life Chances, she argues:

… parental characteristics associated with their income influence children’s wellbeing. We have no direct way of knowing what these characteristics are. Because they are associated with parents’ income they must be correlated with characteristics valued by employers, such as adjustment, skills, enthusiasm, dependability, and hard work. In today’s economy, parents with less than their share of these characteristics cannot make enough money to support themselves unless they get outside help. These same characteristics are valuable to children. Without outside help, parents who rank low on these characteristics find it hard to create an environment conducive to children’s success (p 14-15).

Leigh writes: "Over time, Mayer acknowledges, she came to focus less on money, and more on social and cultural explanations for poverty. My own intellectual journey on this issue has been similar." He suggests that:

… we need to acknowledge the role that family structure plays in perpetuating advantage and disadvantage across generations. But we need to be sure that solutions don’t just compound the problems, because raising children as a lone parent is tough enough without adding to the social stigma. We should build up the evidence on light-touch programs that encourage relationship stability, rather than just make it harder to get a divorce. Similarly, the evidence on parenting investments shouldn’t be taken as a licence to intervene in complex household decisions, but as a pointer towards trialling ways of encouraging a little more ‘concerted cultivation’ in the most disadvantaged households.

What Leigh doesn’t discuss is Mayer’s scepticism about the ability of tightly targeted interventions to make a serious dent in the problem of poverty. In a paper titled “Culture” and the Intergenerational Transmission of Poverty: The Prevention Paradox, Mayer along with Jens Ludwig, explains why changing the behaviour of high risk families is likely to have a relatively small impact on poverty in the next generation.

The problem is that most of tomorrow’s poor adults will not come from today’s highly disadvantaged families. While the risk of going on to be poor is higher for children in these families, the size of this group is relatively small. And even though the risk is lower in non-disadvantaged families the size of this group is large.

Mayer argues that while targeting high risk families is worthwhile, it is unrealistic to expect these kinds of interventions to have a large impact on the scale of poverty. As she and Ludwig explain: "To reduce poverty among future generations, there may be no substitute for a system of social insurance and income transfers for those children who end up poor as adults."

This is the conclusion many progressive politicians seem to fear most — adequate income support. The politically safe approach is put more and more responsibility on poor and disadvantaged adults — to make income support payments conditional on behavioural change and participation in government funded programs. But while it often makes sense to help people adapt to institutions, sometimes it makes more sense to adapt institutions to people.

Read more:

Paul Frijters, On ‘Battlers and Billionaires’ by Andrew Leigh

Andrew Leigh, Family Dynamics Affect Poverty

Annette Lareau, Invisible Inequality: Social Class and Childrearing in Black Families and White Families

Susan E. Mayer, The Influence of Parental Income on Children’s Outcomes

Don Arthur, Mark Latham and the return of the underclass

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Stephen Bounds
Stephen Bounds
10 years ago

Andrew’s book is certainly prompting some interesting and thoughtful posts.

Question: Is it relevant or useful to distinguish between what might be termed “voluntary” poverty (starving artists, life philosophy etc) and “systemic” poverty (lack of education, housing)?

I was just surprised to hear that only a minority of poor people remain poor given all the talk of intergenerational poverty in recent years. Just a myth?

Nicholas Gruen
10 years ago

Not a myth, but a minority of poor people.