The Birthplace of Income Inequality: Pre-K

Children of the wealthy are much more likely to be enrolled in nursery school -- and that has long-term consequences.

Students and parents at Lookout Mountain Preschool in Colorado. (Reuters)

If you are born wealthy in this country, you have an astronomically better shot at getting a good education than if you are born poor. There's a long list of reasons why, but much of it boils down to the simple fact that richer parents have more resources to lavish on their kids. As recently released Census data reminds us, one of the most important places that advantage plays out is in nursery school classrooms. 

Among families that make less than $75,000 a year, about 26 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 6 were enrolled in pre-kindergarten in 2011, while about 29 percent were not in school at all. Among families that make $75,000 or more a year, 34 percent are enrolled in pre-k, while 18 percent aren't yet in class. I've illustrated the pattern in a bit more detail in the graph below. The percentages don't add up to 100, because they don't include children enrolled in higher grade levels. 


The pre-K gap is striking because it's pretty much the only difference in enrollment between income groups. The graph below includes enrollment in higher grade levels in the figures to give you the bigger picture. Poor families making less than $20,000 a year are packing off the almost the same fraction of their young children to kindergarten and elementary school as the upper-middle class and rich. Not so when it comes to pre-K. 


This might not all be a matter of wealth. Upper-income families could simply be more inclined to take the initiative to get their kids signed up for school. But that seems like an inadequate explanation. As the graph below shows, the poorer a family is, the more likely they are to be enrolling their children in a public pre-K program. The wealthier they are, the more likely to send their children to a private one. The implication: higher income kids are more likely to spend time in nursery school because their parents can afford it. 


Research suggests that children who attend pre-k fare better later school and in their careers. By making early childhood education contingent on a parents' wealth, we're giving rich kids a big leg up while also making it more difficult for low-income parents to work. If a child isn't in school, someone has to take care of them. Sometimes that's a daycare program, but for families without access, it probably means mother stays home, taking time off from the workforce and setting back her career. 

For those interested in fixing inequality, whether it's gender or class, making nursery school more available to all wouldn't be a bad place to start. 

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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