The Economics of Parenting

There are plenty of different perspectives about the best way to raise children. Some believe hovering helps children get ahead; others think less supervision encourages children to figure things out for themselves. Some believe extracurricular activities are vital while others, not so much.

The list could continue, but there are bigger issues at hand such as safety and access to enriching environments where children can thrive.

A new Pew Research Center survey of 1,807 U.S. parents with children younger than 18 finds huge differences in parenting based on income. For lower-income parents, financial instability can limit their children’s access to a safe environment and enrichment activities that affluent parents may take for granted.

Higher-income parents are nearly twice as likely as lower-income parents to rate their neighborhood as an “excellent” or “very good” place to raise kids. One-third of parents with annual family incomes less than $30,000 say that their neighborhood is only a “fair” or “poor” place to raise kids.

Lower-income parents are more likely to have concerns about their children being victims of violence. At least half of parents with family incomes less than $30,000 say they worry that their child or children might be kidnapped or get physically attacked. About half of lower-income parents worry their children might be shot at some point, more than double the share among higher-income parents.

Concerns about teen pregnancy and legal trouble are also more prevalent among lower-income parents. Half of lower-income parents worry that their child or one of their children will get pregnant or get a girl pregnant as a teenager, compared with 43 percent of higher-income parents. And, by a margin of 2-to-1, more lower-income than higher-income parents say they worry that their children will get in legal trouble at some point.

At least half of all parents, regardless of income, worry that their children might be bullied or struggle with anxiety or depression someday. For parents with annual family incomes of $75,000 or higher, these concerns trump all others tested in the survey.

Survey findings also showed that lower-income parents with school-age children face more challenges than those with higher incomes when it comes to finding affordable, high-quality afterschool activities and programs. About half of those with annual family incomes less than $30,000 say these programs are hard to find in their community, compared with 29 percent of those with incomes of $75,000 or higher.

And concerning extracurricular activities, far more higher-income parents than lower-income parents say their children are engaged in sports or organizations such as Scouts or take lessons in music, dance or art. Among high-income parents, 84 percent say their children have participated in sports in the 12 months prior to the survey, compared to 59 percent among lower-income parents.

Researchers believe the dramatic changes in family living arrangements have contributed to the growing share of children living at the economic margins. In 2014, 62 percent of children younger than 18 lived in a household with two married parents – a historic low, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. census data. The share of U.S. kids living with only one parent stood at 26 percent in 2014. Also, the share of households with two unmarried parents has risen steadily in recent years.

These patterns differ sharply across racial and ethnic groups. Large majorities of white (72 percent) and Asian-American (82 percent) children are living with two married parents, as are 55 percent of Hispanic children. Only 31 percent of black children are living with two married parents, while more than half (54 percent) are living in a single-parent household.

The economic outcomes for these different types of families vary dramatically. In 2014, 31 percent of children in single-parent households were living below the poverty line, as were 21 percent of children living with two cohabiting parents. Only one-in-10 children living with two married parents were in this circumstance. In fact, more than half (57 percent) of those living with married parents were in households with incomes at least 200 percent above the poverty line, compared with just 21 percent of those living in single-parent households.

There are clearly many variables that promote the safety and well-being of children. The harder question we must ask is this: How can we improve the quality of life for all children?



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