The Socio-Economic Status (SES) of infants and toddlers is the single most powerful indicator of future academic and personal success. At first, that statement seems self-evident – obviously students with more opportunities and fewer limitations will stretch themselves further and ultimately attain more in their lives. That’s the nature of inequality and poverty and is the historical impetus for government assistance and charitable organizations. We live on the assumption that familial circumstances shape the way a child is nurtured by society, and those circumstances over-power the academic/personal potential that Nature imbued in that child. As a country (or maybe a species) we’ve concluded that our social ties are so strong and that they so clearly dictate where we go, who we become, and what we attain (this phenomenon is more commonly referred to as “networking”), that we’ve created an environment where Nurture overpowers Nature. And when we discuss any social liberalism, that’s the baseline – our social ability to Nurture has overpowered our biology-given Nature. So, since we nurture different classes/races/locations of people differently, it has become a matter of ethics and social justice that we actively correct that imbalance. Enter Government Assistance programs and all their negative-rights opponents.
But here’s the kicker – this correlation is not just a social phenomenon; SES does not simply determine social opportunities and limitations. At a very early age, toddlers born into families with low socio-economic statuses show markedly different brain development.
To sum up Jack Shonkoff’s study, linked above, babies, infants, and toddlers have very malleable brains – like puppies, they remember and ingrain into their development almost every early experience. (This is why it’s easier to train a puppy when he is 12 weeks old than it is to train a puppy you adopted when he was one year old). For impoverished families, this emphasizes two realities: that parents almost always have less time to spend talking to their kids – encouraging socialization, positive emotions, and increasing vocabulary and cognitive function through “adult” interactions; and also that parents generally exude less stability, more stress, and less interest in their children, as a result of their SES insecurities. Babies are like puppies – even if they can’t understand all the words, they understand anger, frustration, and sadness – and they react to these emotions in a psychological and biological way. Early exposure to those negative emotions, without a proper balance of more wishy-washy emotions like support, “baby talk”, caregiving, etc, ingrains a reality of constant stress and fear in the brains of these children. Cognitively speaking, no one, neither children nor adults, learns when they are experiencing a strong negative emotion. From 9 or 10 months old, these children are given a physiological obstacle to their academic and personal success in the future. That’s a cerebral certainty.
As a side note, I would like to emphasize that the “realities” stated above – that poor families don’t love, support, or help their children – are grossly overstated, and obviously stereotyping. Obviously not all poor families are failed families (when using “failed family the way the UN defines “failed states”). And obviously there are plenty of wealthy families who “fail” and whose children flounder. Correlation does not equal causation here – there is a strong correlation between impoverished families and unstable, less-friendly, less-encouraging homes, but there is no evidence to suggest that the SES of the family causes any of the negative repercussions the infant/toddler might experience.
In any event – socially and biologically, these conclusions emphasize the importance of preschool. Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, made this one of his points his State of the State address, and explained that we need more funding for early education programs. According to our governor, 29,000 four-year olds are eligible for the state’s free preschool program, Great Start Readiness Program (Snyder really drops the ball on “catchy slogans”) but they have no preschool to attend. Snyder understands that for every $1 we spend on early education, taxpayers save $7 in the future – due to decreased crime, more economic productivity, and less reliance on welfare programs.
This is not just a matter of raw education that takes place for 3 and 4 year olds. Preschool is only very gently about “problem solving” and “vocabulary building” and all those other things we associate with “learning” and “school”. Preschool requires the child to socialize and develop emotionally. In bad home situations, it offers the child a daily safe-haven from the stresses and obstacles of low-income life – a necessary positivity that counteracts the negative physiological repercussions of constant stress and negativity at home.
But Snyder is conflicted (aren’t all politicians?). Decreasing crime and reliance upon welfare, while increasing economic and academic opportunity were NOT the issues he singled out as the ultimate priorities for the State of Michigan. He claimed that transportation infrastructure is “the single toughest issue” facing Michigan.
Though my tone is disparaging, I don’t actually think he’s being ridiculous. Putting money into the infrastructure would improve dangerous roads, increase public transit for communities that need it, create transportation between communities like Ann Arbor and Detroit where there is a lot of work-home commuting, and obviously would create jobs for then thousands of unemployed. Of course, this last point – the Republican battle cry of “JOBS JOBS JOBS” is his biggest focal point. But realistically we have to recognize two things. First, he has decided to deal with the loudly present symptoms of unemployment, rather than preventative measures which more directly address the problem. Secondly, by choosing to fund construction jobs over early childhood education jobs, he is realistically choosing between government funding for men’s jobs vs. government funding for women’s jobs.
I’M ACKNOWLEDGING THE BREWING COUNTER ARGUMENTS:
I acknowledge that there is nothing legal which prevents gender cross-over in those sectors. I acknowledge that discussing employment in terms of “men’s work” and “women’s work” can be seen as regressive and anti-feminist (and yet, by pointing out the inequity, it can also be seen as feminist). And I recognize that there is a strong contingency of people (though they probably don’t read my blog) who see this gender differentiation in the midst of an otherwise relevant argument about socio-economic opportunity, as distracting and irrelevant. This is me acknowledging the counter-arguments so I can prove how I’m right.
… AND NOW I WILL REFUTE THOSE COUNTER-ARGUMENTS:
We have to recognize the complexity of this juncture – where the need for early education and the need for jobs meet. A number of different forms of evidence suggest that those children who come from families with low SES, were children that were unplanned for – i.e., they were born to people who did not have proper birth control access to prevent the pregnancy, did not have the means or the access to obtain an abortion, and had no meaningful resources after becoming pregnant to discuss the options and the consequences. I will refrain from opening the debate over women’s reproductive health here, and instead just focus on the other inequities I’ve already laid out, but I’m sure you can see how this is not a straightforward circumstance.
This is society’s issue, but it is also necessarily a woman’s issue as women are the only members of society capable of carrying a pregnancy to term, thereby creating children who need preschool and, eventually, jobs. Many of the 29,000 children who qualify for free preschool are born into single mother families, and they qualify because their mothers are unemployed or under-employed. These children are exposed to the biological stresses of poverty which create physiological obstacles that inhibit their long-term success, because the women who head their households do not have enough work. So I rebuke the argument that differentiating between “men’s work” and “women’s work” in this conversation is irrelevant – clearly the employment of women has a direct effect on the SES of their children and that SES has an effect of the child’s success and productivity.
Again, we have to rely on correlation, not causation, but the correlations are pretty difficult to dispute.
Across America, 24% of children live in single mother homes – those are households without adult male influence or caregiver. Of that 24%, in Michigan, 81% of those households live in poverty. The number is higher in other states – like my home-state NM where it’s 84% (though Mississippi is the winner at 87%). In other kinds of households – single father or two-parent – only 30% of children live in poverty, according to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in their study U.S. Children in Single Mother Families.
So when we argue about how to best abate unemployment, why do we so often focus on jobs which are historically best suited and nearly exclusive to men? Well Robert O. Self has a very poignant perspective on this in his book All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960’s. It’s a phenomenally insightful analysis of and take on the role that “family values” plays in our public policy debates. Essentially, we as a country gear our economic policies towards the “nuclear family” – we want to encourage two-parent homes, with a single breadwinner, preferably male. Our economic policies encourage this image – we have jobs initiatives which are almost always geared towards men – things like infrastructure and construction. These initiatives were so wonderfully effective back in FDR’s era, when women did house and factory work, that they are a veritable “go-to” when we hit rough patches in the job-market. Again, I emphasize that it is irrelevant that women have the negative right to working in construction. Construction is an almost exclusively male-dominated field and it receives an incredible bulk of job-creation funding. It is not enough to say to a woman “go put on your hard hat” because the intangible barriers – from accessible child-care to physical unpreparedness – are deeply ingrained and incredibly difficult to overcome, without help.
HERE’S AN EXAMPLE OF HOW IRRELEVANT A WOMAN’S NEGATIVE RIGHT TO WORK IN A “MAN’S” INDUSTRY REALLY IS:
Pick a profession which is the female equivalent, one which requires no additional schooling or specialized skills and in which men have the negative right to work, but which is nonetheless is almost exclusively female-dominated. How about day-cares? Our economic policies do not incentivize these jobs on either end – either encouraging employers to hire more caregivers with tax breaks or encouraging workers to apply through higher pay grades. However, this is one of the most necessary services in America today, where any family having a stay-at-home parent is now in the minority. These services are at least as beneficial as infrastructure (if not MORE beneficial because they allow parents – both mothers and fathers – to have more affordable child care and thereby work longer/go to school/etc). However, the government does not incentivize the industry of child care. Why? Because we see it as a secondary work-force – an income supplemental to the breadwinner’s income. And we see it that way because that’s what it has become – that’s what our previous economic policies made it. While tech industries and construction workers were receiving a leg-up, day cares were not receiving any kind of government help. They weren’t being oppressed, but the lack of help in a social structure where government help is a make-or-break aspect of industry security, created a situation wherein day care is secondary and inferior, both in perception and in pay grade. All of this is a result of basic perceptions, based largely on gender, about the difficulty and necessity of different types of work.
Now I’m not saying that “The Man” is trying to squash females in the work-force or keep the poor, poorer. We’ve made huge strides in re-defining the American family, and therefore American economic policy. But we need more than negative rights, if we’re going to make long-lasting improvements to the bottom tier of society. We need to offer the single mothers and impoverished children more than the legal freedom to achieve whatever they want, we need to help them achieve it by recognizing the inequities we live by and actively addressing those inequities.
We have two inequitable social situations which can both be substantially improved with the same measure – increase female employment and encourage higher wages for those industries which are almost exclusively female. That would include early-childhood education. Subsequently, we would have more preschools and a more competitive preschool market, increasing availability and quality for those children who need it most – and that could help pull them out of the poverty-cycle they’ve been born into.