- Margot Jackson
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Families and governments are the primary sources of investment in children, proving access to basic resources and other developmental opportunities. Recent research identifies significant class gaps in parental investments that contribute to high levels of inequality by family income and education and, potentially, to inequality in children’s development. State-level public investments in children and families have the potential to reduce class inequality in children’s developmental environments by affecting parents’ behavior. Using newly assembled administrative data from 1998-2014, linked to household-level data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, we examine how public sector investment in income support, health and education is associated with the private expenditures of low and high-SES parents on developmental items for children. Are class gaps in parental investments in children narrower in contexts of higher public investment for children and families? We find that more generous public spending for children and families is associated with significantly narrower class gaps in private parental investments. Moreover, we find that equalization is driven by bottom up increases in low-SES household spending for the progressive investments of income support and health, and by top down decreases in high-SES household spending for the universal investment of public education.
Recent expansions of child tax, food assistance and health insurance programs have made American families’ need for a robust social safety net highly evident, while researchers and policymakers continue to debate the best way to support families via the welfare state. How much do children – and which children – benefit from social spending? Using the State-by-State Spending on Kids Dataset, linked to National Vital Statistics System birth data from 1998-2017, we examine how state-level child spending affects infant health across maternal education groups. We find that social spending has benefits for both low birth weight and preterm birth rates, especially among babies born to mothers with less than a high school education. The stronger benefits of social spending among lower-educated families lead to meaningful declines in educational gaps in infant health as social spending increases. Finally, mediation analyses suggest that social spending benefits infant health through mothers’ increased access to prenatal services, as well as improvements in health behaviors. Our findings are consistent with the idea that a strong local welfare state benefits child health and increases equality of opportunity, and that spending on non-health programs is equally beneficial for child health as investments in health programs.
Educational inequality in the health of U.S. children—what social scientists refer to as the “educational gradient” in health—is present at birth for virtually every marker of health, and increases throughout childhood. However, a puzzling contradiction to this pattern has been observed among the growing population of youth in immigrant families. Some evidence suggests an ambiguous relationship between education and health among immigrant families, with a flat relationship between maternal education and maternal health behaviors and children’s birth outcomes, and a stronger relationship as children become adolescents. Does an educational gradient in health emerge among children in immigrant families during childhood and adolescence? To date, we lack a prospective examination of how the gradient changes from birth throughout childhood and adolescence among this population. Moreover, while the dominant explanation for a weaker gradient among children with immigrant parents centers on the family setting, we know little about family-level dynamics among the same immigrant families as children age. Using national, longitudinal data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, we examine the association between maternal education and children’s health (measured by mothers’ ratings) over the early life course (birth through age 15) among children of immigrants and children of native-born parents, and consider whether changes in children’s economic status and family composition contribute to the educational gradient, or lack thereof, in child health. Analyses reveal that: (1) maternal education is strongly predictive of health, even among children of immigrants; (2) immigrant status does not appear to be protective for health within educational groups, as evidenced by poorer health among children of immigrants whose mothers have the lowest level of education, as compared to children of natives; (3) children in the least-educated immigrant families are experiencing better health trajectories as they age than children in similar native-born families; and (4) accounting for economic conditions and family composition does not reduce the size of the gradient over time.