By Sophie Gardiner.

A recent opinion column by David Brooks in The New York Times highlights the growing inequality of opportunities for children in the US. According to research by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, more affluent parents have begun investing far more time and money in their children, while less affluent parents haven’t been able to.

Richer children are much more likely to participate in after-school sports, and in nonsporting activities. On the other hand, “poorer kids have become more pessimistic and detached,” which Putnam attributes to the failure of different institutions to provide support to them. More money is being directed to health care for the elderly and less into child welfare. Brooks points out the severity of the implications of greater inequality in the US in the future, and calls for politicians to drastically increase funding for early childhood programs.

What is happening in Latin America?

A 2009 IDB paper on social mobility in Latin America finds that Latin America (with the exception of Chile) has even lower social mobility than developed countries. To strengthen this message, a 2009  report produced by UNDP states that mobility is most static among the wealthiest in Latin America, indicating that the reproduction of wealth is stronger in Latin America than in the industrialized world. Corroborating these findings, a World Bank study in 2008 also found that Chile had increased access to opportunities more than any country in the region. The study highlighted the Chile Crece Contigo (MIDEPLAN 2007) program as one of the sources of opportunity equalization. Early childhood is a critical period for human capital accumulation.

A few studies have identified certain mechanisms through which inequality is perpetuated at an early age. The IDB study cites “family background” (including parental education, income, and the effects of marriage within social classes) as determinants of social mobility in the region. The mechanisms through which this factor affects human capital accumulation at an early age range from infant nutrition, to quality of the home environment, to access to social networks. Extensive research following a sample of children over time in Ecuador carried out by IDB staff has documented that by the time children enter school, those from very poor backgrounds are at a clear disadvantage in terms of their cognitive development when compared to children who are relatively better-off. These gaps do not appear to close as children advance in school.

Leveling the playing field to provide children equal opportunities to start in life seems like a critical policy priority in a region where inequality has been documented to result in much inefficiency. The evidence that parents investments can be favoring better-off children and widening the gap between them and the poor is indeed worrisome. It only strengthens the argument for sustained investments in high-quality early childhood services targeted to the most vulnerable sectors of the population.

Sophie Gardiner is a senior at Middlebury College studying International Politics and Economics. At present, she is a summer intern at IDB’s Social Protection and Health Division.

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