Equity & Diversity

Study Links Income Boosts, Academic Success

By Linda Jacobson — November 28, 2001 3 min read
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Small increases in family income can better prepare poor children for school and help them perform at the same level as their peers who come from higher- income households, a study released last week concludes.

Such increases can lead to improvements in social skills, knowledge of colors, letters, and shapes, and better vocabulary, according to the study from researchers at Harvard University and Baylor University.

“Gains in family economic resources, be they naturally occurring or resulting from interventions, are likely to improve the cognitive and social functioning of very young children,” according to the authors. The findings appear in the November/December issue of Child Development, the journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

Focus on Poor Children

The study is bound to be of interest to policymakers as they look for ways to improve the well-being of poor children, the authors say. The researchers analyzed data from the sample of 1,216 families that was collected as part of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s “Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development.”

They calculated each family’s income-to-needs ratio—a figure used to compare income in relation to the poverty level for a family that size. The measure is computed by dividing the total family income by the poverty level for the appropriate family size.

The children’s home environment was measured as well as their cognitive development at 15 months and 3 years of age. The children’s behavior was also assessed when they were 3.

In the study, for a family of four below the poverty level, average income was $15,300. When their needs did not change, an increase of about $13,400 total over three years resulted in higher achievement levels for their children.

And Eric Dearing, a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard’s graduate school of education and the lead author of the study, noted that even with the additional income, the families were still earning only half of what the middle-class families were making, even though their children were performing at the same level in school.

A change in the income-to-needs ratio, the researchers found, had little impact on children from nonpoor families, but it made a great difference for children in poverty. In their conclusion, they call the increase “a powerful protective factor for children from poor families.”

Small Amounts, Big Value

The study could receive some attention during the upcoming debate over the federal welfare law, which underwent a thorough overhaul in 1996. Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act next year.

Earlier research on welfare- demonstration programs in the 1990s has shown that when family income increases, children do better in school.

For example, a study by the New York City-based Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. that evaluated 11 welfare- to-work programs that preceded the 1996 federal law found that children were not harmed when their mothers began working. (“Welfare-to-Work Linked to Children’s Learning,” Jan. 31, 2001.)

But it also found that the children’s school performance improved when their parents received additional income on top of their paychecks. Four of the 11 programs rewarded parents financially for working full- or part-time jobs.

Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said that the new study by the Harvard and Baylor researchers was significant because it measured the change in financial resources over time, rather than documenting families’ incomes at a particular point and then comparing them with one another.

Mr. Dearing said that the welfare programs studied by the MDRC included a wide array of supports for poor families, such as child care and health care. But the new study, he said, shows that “relatively small amounts” of money can improve children’s well-being.

“The question is, how low can you go and still produce positive outcomes for kids,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Study Links Income Boosts, Academic Success

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