The Importance of Social Institutions

The costs of poverty for young children are high, and James Heckman does well to point this out. All the evidence suggests that the first few years of childhood matter.

Still, he does not give sufficient weight to the role of social institutions in shaping the life chances of children. Parents give children a start, but families interact with many institutions. Childcare centers, public schools, social services providers, health care services, employers, and police and courts are just a handful of the institutions that young people may encounter as they move out of the family and into the world. These institutions train, sort, and affirm social worth.

We know that the quality of the services these institutions offer varies according to the social class of their clients, a fact that receives scant attention in Heckman’s piece. Elite public and private schools, for example, routinely offer smaller class sizes, higher-level courses, and more intensive programs for the transition to college than do schools attended by children in less affluent communities. Per-pupil expenditures are often two or three times higher in elite suburban public districts than in less affluent communities.

And these social institutions often are deeply flawed. Police officers beat up innocent parents, courts convict black men at higher rates than they do white men with comparable charges, social workers mistakenly cut off families with young children from government support, and childcare workers are sometimes abusive. Although data are limited, it appears that working-class parents bear the brunt of these failures. As a result, working-class families are less likely to trust these basic institutions than are middle-class families.

Furthermore, we live in a society where institutional standards are heavily influenced by middle-class child rearing practices. Just as clothing trends change according to the desires of those who can afford the newest fashion, so do schools regularly change their standards of achievement and methods for promoting achievement. Middle-class parents gain advantages for their children by being in sync with the standards of institutions. My research has found that while working-class parents often look visibly anxious or withdrawn at school events for their young children, middle-class parents look much more comfortable. At an “open house” at an elementary school, for example, middle-class parents joked with each other and with the educators. A comparable event at a school with working-class families was quiet and awkward.

Don’t ignore failing social institutions that compound poor children’s disadvantage.

We also know that the professionals operating and advising these institutions often change their minds. In one decade they promote rigid schedules for infants; decades later they promote more flexible schedules. In all historical periods, middle-class parents tend to hew more closely to the advice of professionals than do working-class parents. Heckman needs to focus more on the ways in which institutions are organized as well as the criteria institutions use in evaluations in order to understand the role of class differences in life chances.

Finally, today’s middle-class rearing strategies may be tied to strong educational outcomes, but Heckman does not address their less attractive results. Upper-middle-class children can be rude and demanding of adults. In elite colleges, upper-middle-class children can express disbelief when they get a B, or even an A-.

Presumptuous children are products of the adults around them. In my study of families of young children, published in 2011 as Unequal Childhoods, my research assistants and I found that adults repeatedly convey a sense of entitlement to upper-middle-class young people. Adults go to great lengths to cultivate their talents and tell them that they are special. They foster their children’s verbal development. Children then use their verbal skills to proclaim their preferences. “I hate him,” one ten-year-old middle-class white girl said about her brother. “I know,” her mother said. A middle-class African American girl fought bitterly with her sister in the car on a family trip. Her parents sighed heavily: “We should have separated them,” the mother said.

Children in the working-class families we observed were vastly more respectful of their parents and siblings. Working-class children had tiffs with their siblings, but were not routinely hostile. And, in a follow-up study a decade later, the working-class families had a level of connection that middle-class families lacked. Many working-class parents spoke on the phone with their family members every day. Also, working-class youth often had a clearer transition to adulthood than did the middle-class youth. Middle-class youth had strong academic performances but were very dependent on their parents. (Middle-class twenty-somethings will call their parents 3,000 miles away for guidance on how to get across town.)

Two babies born today in America may have very different life chances depending on the social class of their parents. But it is a mistake to focus only on the characteristics of parents and to discount the role of social institutions in producing and validating this pattern of inequality. And while educational achievement certainly shapes income, health, and a host of social outcomes, it is not everything in life.