Five ways to increase opportunity for the kids who need it most

Jul 25, 2012

We've been taking a look at what research can tell us about getting ahead in America. Last week, we brought you "Five facts about achieving the American Dream." This week, we're keeping the format, but changing the focus. Here's our list of five ways to improve opportunity for disadvantaged kids:

1. Start in the home.

So let’s meet Angela Ducket, and her daughter, Aurora.

Aurora is 16 months old. She’s actually Angela’s second child. Angela had her first child when she was still in high school. And she gave him up to his dad, because she says she knew she couldn’t give her son the life he needed.

When she found out she was pregnant with Aurora, she panicked again.

“But this time I swore that I was going to do right by her," she says.

So she started reading parenting books, and going to classes.

Now that Aurora is a toddler, the Duckets get visits from a social worker who helps with things like transportation. Aurora is also enrolled in a program in Kent County called Healthy Start. It tracks her development, and gives Angela ideas for developmental toys that don’t cost a lot of money.

“Healthy Start will give you ways to do it where the books say, ‘Go out and buy this expensive set,’ and Healthy Start says, ‘Oh, just use old pots and pans, or oh, just use cardboard boxes, or movie cases,’” Ducket says.

This kind of stuff is important because studies show that kids from low-income homes are behind the other kids before they even get to kindergarten. In the early years especially, the learning that happens in the home makes the biggest difference.

But even in homes where the parents do their best, there are other influences that can hold children back.

2. Focus on high-poverty neighborhoods.

Sean Reardon is a professor at Stanford who studies inequalities in the education system. He says studies have shown that neighborhoods can make a big difference in school performance.

"One is a study where low-income families in Maryland were randomly assigned to different low income housing units around the county," he says.

When they were reassigned, some were put in neighborhoods with high poverty rates. Others were put in neighborhoods where most of the people were middle income.

"Turned out that the kids assigned to the more middle class neighborhoods did a lot better in school five or six years down the road," Reardon says.

The kids were still living in low-income homes. But the schools and the neighborhoods were mixed, and their grades improved.  

The problem is, if you’re living in a high poverty neighborhood, you might not have the resources to move out. Which leads us to ...  

3. Savings accounts.

This one is "particularly important for families who are low-income," says Erin Currier, director of the Pew Economic Mobility Project. The project has done many reports what it takes for families to get ahead.

"If you have even a little bit of savings," Currier says, "Even if you have that $200 saved, you are that much more able to handle a small financial emergency that may come up."

And parents who manage to build up some savings, might also be able to move on to the next option on the list to give their children a better shot ...

4. Home ownership

This might seem like an outdated idea, given what’s happened to the housing market. But the Pew Project has looked into the data after the crash. Erin Currier says home-ownership still makes a difference in whether kids go to college.

"And we find that those who were at the ... bottom and middle of the income distribution are significantly more likely to send their children to college than they would have been," Currier says. "And, in particular, that their kids go to better colleges - quote, unquote. They might go to a four-year college as opposed to a community college.

5. Don't just get kids to college, get them through college

"Our research shows that kids who start in the bottom fifth and get a four-year degree literally quadruple their chances of making it all the way to the top," says Erin Currier.

And by that she means, they quadruple their chances of having a high income. Getting that college degree is what all the other items on our list are about. The studies show that people who graduate college are the most likely to break out of a  cycle of poverty. With a college degree, they make their own opportunity.