Abstract: Economic (im)Mobility and Responsive and Harsh Parenting (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Economic (im)Mobility and Responsive and Harsh Parenting

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
William Schneider, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD
Background/Purpose: Geographic location has implications for one’s ability to move up the economic ladder (Chetty et al., 2014). Chetty and colleagues (2016) drew on tax records of more than five million U.S. families to estimate the causal effect of growing up in each county on the future income of children (Donnelly, et al., 2017). Building on this work, Donnelly and colleagues (2017) matched this data to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) to examine the influence of county-level income mobility (IM) – the likelihood of moving up the income ladder - on child behavior and achievement. They found that children from low-income families who grew up in high IM counties displayed fewer externalizing behaviors at age 3 and larger gains in cognitive test scores between ages 3 and 9. Chetty and colleagues’ results reveal important insights about the connection between place-specific IM and low-income children’s later income (Chetty et al., 2014). Donnelly and colleagues’ (2017) findings indicate that one pathway for this result is through fewer child behavior problems and greater cognitive gains.

We further investigate how higher county-level IM may lead to better life outcomes for low-income children. Since children’s primary influence is the family, we examine how being low-income in a high IM county may influence maternal parenting. Changes in maternal parenting may be a key pathway through which low-income children achieve upward economic mobility. We ask whether being low-income and growing up in a high IM county is associated with (1) decreased maternal harsh parenting; (2) increased maternal affect and responsivity; (3) increased home-based cognitive stimulation; and (4) increased maternal work. We hypothesize that being low-income in a high IM county will be associated with decreased maternal harsh parenting and increased maternal affect, responsivity, and cognitive stimulation in the home. However, it may not be associated with maternal work.

Methods: We utilize data from the FFCWS, a longitudinal birth cohort study of families with children born in large US cities, linked to data on county IM from the Equality of Opportunity Project. These data provide causal effects of county residence on IM as a function of the percentage change in household income at age 26 for children from low-income families, compared to the national mean. We estimate OLS regressions and Hierarchical Linear Models of the association between county IM and maternal parenting at ages 3, 5, and 9, controlling for a range of socio-demographic characteristics. We stratify the sample by baseline household income (below/above national median) and cluster the standard errors at the county level.

Results: Children in low-income families in high IM counties experience less harsh parenting and maternal stress than their peers in low IM counties. However, we find no significant associations between county IM and responsive parenting.

Conclusions and Implications: This study offers new evidence on how opportunities for IM may influence parenting behaviors and also that parenting behaviors may be key potential mechanisms linking childhood economic environment with adult wellbeing, providing implications for both placed-based and family-level intervention, which we discuss.