Opinion: Poor kids’ brains don’t work as well as rich kids’ brains do

Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam's new book "Our Kids" analyzes inequality among the nation's children. Above, school children hold hands on the Grape St. Elementary playground in Watts.
(Christina House / For The Times)

In my column today, I wrote about the many ways affluent children have an easier time than poor kids at getting ahead in life – and not only because they have more money.
Here are a few more examples, drawn from Robert D. Putnam’s new book, Our Kids:

• We know that children fare better in two-parent families than in one-parent households. That’s no longer largely a racial divide; white working-class families are buckling. About 66% of all children with parents whose education stopped at high school are in one-parent families now, compared with only 8% of kids with college-educated parents.

• Upper-middle-class parents don’t just provide more material goods for their kids; they spend more time with them, talk more with them, read more to them, even eat dinner with them more often. Putnam calls this the “Goodnight Moon gap,” and nonprofit organizations (including Los Angeles Universal Preschool) are working on it.

• Several medical studies have found that poor children’s brains function less efficiently than affluent kids’ brains – not because they are genetically inferior, but because they grew up in unsafe, stressful environments that taught them watchfulness and fear.

There’s more information about these issues on Putnam’s website.

The point, of course, is not that affluent parents should feel guilty about giving their children every advantage (they shouldn’t), still less that they should somehow be prevented from spending money on their kids. (Although it’s striking to learn that in 19 states, schools in affluent areas get more tax money per student than schools that serve the poor.)


The point is that we can do more to narrow most of those nonfinancial gaps, including better “air bags” to help kids when they inevitably stumble. That’s what candidates for public office ought to be talking about.

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