Parenting and Inequality

By Horton, Tim; Haydon-Mulligan, Ollie | Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Parenting and Inequality


Horton, Tim, Haydon-Mulligan, Ollie, Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics


David Cameron first made the claim that what matters most for raising children is 'the warmth, not the wealth' in describing the advantages of his own upbringing to the Tory party conference (Cameron, 2007a).

Now he believes his idea is backed up by copper-bottomed social science evidence for caring less about redistribution. When the think-tank Demos recently published research on the crucial importance of parenting for child outcomes (Lexmond and Reeves, 2009), Cameron leapt on the opportunity to highlight his most cherished 'dividing line' with the left: a preoccupation with redistributing income, he suggested, amounted to 'just treating the symptoms of these problems instead of the root causes' (Cameron, 2010a).

Only a fool would doubt that parenting is fundamental to your future life outcomes. But there is something deeply bogus about setting 'income' and 'parenting' against one another as competing factors, and asking which is most important - as Cameron seeks to do - if the quality of parenting itself depends on income. And this is precisely what parenting research shows (1).

Income matters for parenting not just for the ability of parents to buy stuff for their kids, but specifically through the effects of financial pressures on parents' psychological well-being. Here, income poverty isn't a symptom, as Cameron suggests, but a deep cause - one of the factors that lie in the background behind parenting.

How it works is like this. First, the pressure of financial difficulties such as low income or a drop in income leads to greater psychological distress, anxiety and even depression among parents. This has been repeatedly demonstrated over the last 20 years in a classic series of studies by Professor Rand Conger at Iowa State University (see, for example, Conger et al, 1992; Conger et al, 1994; and Conger et al, 2002). In one study, he found that as much as a half of parents' depressed mood could be accounted for by economic pressures (Conger et al, 1 992). And many other studies have confirmed this link (see, for example, Gershoff et al, 2007; Parke et al, 2004; and Yeung et al, 2002) (2).

Secondly, parents are generally less effective when they're stressed. This weakens the quality of the parent-child relationship and leads to more aggressive and less responsive parenting (see, for example, Gershoff et al, 2007; Mistry et al, 2002; Parke et al, 2004; and Yeung et al, 2002). One recent study, by Elizabeth Gershoff at the University of Texas found substantial effects of parental stress on parenting behaviour, including reduced 'warmth' from parents towards their children (Gershoff et al, 2007). The negative effects of stress on parenting can also occur via parental conflict: in one of Conger's studies, marital conflict and maternal depression accounted for as much as half of the variation in mothers' parenting quality (Conger et al, 1992).

So warmth, to some extent, depends on wealth. The statistical tests involved in parenting research can be complicated, but none of this is rocket science. Since income influences the quality of parenting, then you can't use the importance of parenting to downgrade the importance of income.

Conservative thinking on social justice consistently states that 'behavioural' factors like debt, family breakdown and poor parenting are the 'root causes' of income poverty (for example, Cameron, 2010b). Strangely, the right is slow to see how income poverty could itself be a driver of these. The obvious point is that the causation runs both ways.

That life chances are about much more than income should be uncontroversial. But long before David Cameron came across any research on child development, he was arguing strenuously to downgrade the role of income redistribution in welfare as a matter of principle. 'The methods of the centre-left, principally income redistribution and social programmes run by the state', he has argued, 'have now run their course' (Cameron, 2008); 'what really matters', he told another audience, 'is reducing the share of national income taken by the state' (Cameron, 2007b). …

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