Economic inequality has profound effects on children’s wellbeing. The prevailing narrative has focused on how inequality shapes the investments parents make in their children, but little research has investigated the implications of inequality for parenting quality. Moreover, the extant research has focused on objective inequality, though subjective perceptions of inequality may also influence parenting. Addressing these gaps, we examine the influence of objective and subjective inequality on two indicators of parenting quality, corporal punishment attitudes and authoritarian parenting attitudes. First, we ask whether objective measures of inequality are associated with increases in attitudes favoring harsh and authoritarian parenting. Next, we ask whether subjective perceptions of inequality have a unique and distinct influence on parenting attitudes compared to objective inequality. Last, we parse whether there are differences by race and child age to identify whether some children are at greater risk of experiencing harsh or authoritarian attitudes.
We use the data from U.S. General Social Survey (GSS) from 1986 to 2016 combined with regional Gini index data to answer these questions. The GSS allows for analyses over an extended time period and is nationally representative. We restrict our sample to respondents who are parents of children 0-18 years old (N = ~8,500 parents) and draw on two measures of respondents’ opinion about parenting: (1) sometimes children need a good hard spanking; and (2) how important is it that children obey their parents.
We find that being a parent in the middle of the income ladder, but not the bottom, is associated with increased odds of approval of spanking. Subjective perceptions of inequality (social class, living standard, and income gaps) are also associated with increased odds of approval of spanking. Our findings suggest that subjective inequality may be an important predictor of parenting above and beyond objective markers.
Conclusions and Implications
This work addresses two open questions about how children experience inequality. First, we extend the literature to include the influence of inequality on parenting quality, as opposed to parental investments. Second, we test emerging theoretical and empirical evidence about the importance of subjective indicators of economic inequality, which may be more widespread than traditional objective measures. Preliminary findings indicate that parents’ subjective perceptions of inequality influences parenting beyond objective measures of economic status. Future analyses will further explore these findings, investigating potential mismatch between objective and subjective inequality and how it may relate to parenting quality. In addition, by drawing on both national and regional measures of inequality (Gini coefficient) we will examine how these associations may have changed over time at the community level as inequality has increased.