Connect These Dots

Child poverty, we know all too well, is a stubborn blight on the American Dream.  It will likely require not only deepened commitments, but innovative thinking, if we are to see significant declines in this pre-eminent “risk factor.”

Perhaps it’s the case that poor families, fundamentally, respond to the same motivations as the rest of us. They want to look into the eyes of their child and see the promise, or at least the hope, of tomorrow. One demonstration of the power of hope is suggested by a recent study of parents of young children.

A random sample, drawn from Oklahoma births in 2008, was created to test the effects on children’s well-being of Child Development Accounts (CDAs). CDAs (which have been adopted by several countries) in this case built upon the state’s existing college-savings plans. Operated by states that choose to do so, college-savings plans are designed by the federal government to exempt from state and federal taxes parents’ contributions (up to certain maximums).

Oklahoma’s SEED OK experiment went several steps further. Mothers in the treatment group were offered several incentives to start CDAs for their newborns: most significantly, $1,000 in “seed money,” deposited into a state-owned plan account, but also additional monetary incentives (the initial minimum deposit, and a “match” program) for mothers who opened her own CDAs.

Mothers in the control group, otherwise similar in all measured respects, received none of these incentives, but could still open their own plan account. As it happened, few mothers in either group managed to create their own CDAs (about two-thirds of each group were in low-income families), so the experiment was primarily a test of knowing a “nest egg” had been created for their child’s postsecondary education.

These children will be followed for as long as the study budget allows.  However, the newly- reported results are for children’s social-emotional skills at age four. Those skills, we know from a great deal of research, are every bit as important to children’s success in school as knowledge of the alphabet, or number skills, or other traditional cognitive measures. The SEED participants’ scores were significantly higher than the control group’s, particularly for children in disadvantaged families (that is, those who were low-income, had mothers with little education, received welfare, or were renters).

How did the intervention work? The mechanism has got to have something to do with raising parents’ expectations and the level of their involvement with the task of child-rearing. Sometimes indirect influence is more effective than direct prescription (ask any parent of a toddler).

People reasonably disagree about what will be durable ways to address poverty. However, most can agree that children should have a chance at a future that is brighter than the one their parents may be saddled with. By encouraging families — even in a modest way — to keep this spark alive, we can help promote that future for all children.