When Class Became More Important to a Child's Education Than Race

A 2013 study by sociologists Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg found that disparities in spending between the top and the bottom grew between the 1990s and 2000s, with parents in the bottom half of income distribution actually spending less on their children in the 2000s than previously--probably because of decreasing incomes.

"It's everyone trying to take care of their kids, but if you have a lot of money, you can do all of them, the Mandarin, the lacrosse, the SAT tutoring, the camps," says Richard Murnane, a Harvard University economist and editor of Whither Opportunity, a 2011 book that published the Reardon and Kaushal studies. "You can do a lot of extra things with extra money."

Money Matters

America's widening class gap shapes the hopes and prospects of families like the Lynches, who live just a few miles from the Klaitman-Smalls in Crown Heights, a mostly working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn where stately limestone townhouses and public housing projects stand side by side.

At first glance, the lives of Bryson Lynch, two, and his three-year-old brother London are not too different from the lives of the Klaitman-Small children. On a sticky afternoon in July, the two boys were busy in their shared room in the back of their parents' three-story home in Brooklyn. London was building a tower with Lego bricks. Bryson was toting around a plastic beach bucket and pretending to build a sand castle on the rug. A television set atop a dresser was tuned to a cartoon on Nick Jr., Nickelodeon's preschool channel.

Their quiet play didn't last long--after a while, they tumbled into the living room. London grabbed his scooter and did a circle around the room. Bryson found an iPad, turned on his favorite song, and began to dance. Their parents, Larry, 32, and Krystal, 29, seated nearby at the kitchen table, kept a watchful but patient eye on the boys' exuberant play.

Children in both families are lucky to have parents focused on creating a path to happy, successful adulthood for their children. But in making sure their children reach their highest potential, the Lynches have far fewer resources available to them.

The family would most likely count as solidly middle-class in any other city, but in New York money can sometimes be tight. "We're not rich, but we're not struggling," says Krystal.

Larry works for the city's medical-examiner office as a computer technician, and Krystal has stayed home with the boys since New York City laid her off from her job as an operator for its information hotline, 311, in August 2012. They bought their house through a city affordable-housing lottery, and the Lynches qualify for Head Start, the free federal preschool program for children living near the poverty line.

Both parents are happy with their standard of living. But they also want their boys to be more successful than they have been. "Whatever will make them happy, as long as it's not hanging out on the streets," Larry said. "Not everyone can be a lawyer or a doctor ... but I would actually love that."

Opportunities that would launch the boys on a path to being lawyers or doctors can seem elusive, however. Larry, a product of the New York City public schools, refuses to send his children to any of the poorly performing public schools in the neighborhood. They can't afford Catholic school tuition--about $5,000 a year, they say. Instead, Krystal has researched privately run charter schools in the area and picked out her top choice: an all-boys charter run by the network Uncommon Schools, which receives high marks on the city's grading system but chooses students through a lottery--meaning they won't necessarily get in.

To supplement Head Start, Krystal has both boys work on their letters and numbers every night. At age three, London can write his full name; lately he's been practicing writing it in a straight line. Bryson can count to 20. But Krystal Lynch has a harder time finding enrichment activities outside of the home to keep the boys busy and engage their growing brains. Research suggests that new experiences are essential to building children's vocabularies, and that a large vocabulary is in turn essential for a successful academic career.

"There so many places to take children, but they're so expensive," Krystal Lynch says. "They'll have trial [classes], but we can't go back for another class, because they're $80 for one session. It's a little frustrating."

Instead, she takes the children to the park and to free swimming classes offered by the city. The family went on their first out-of-town vacation this August, a day trip to the Sesame Place Family Theme Park, in Langhorne, Penn.

Race no doubt plays a role in the different opportunities available to the Klaitman-Small and Lynch children. The Klaitman-Smalls are white and the Lynches are African-American, and black families are still disproportionately represented among lower-income groups. But Larry Lynch says his own experiences and those of the other people in his neighborhood reflect what the trend lines show: that social class has become increasingly important in deciding outcomes for children.

"I think race is starting to be a little less of a factor," Larry Lynch says. "It just matters less these days."

The Information Divide

When Jessica Klaitman considers what it might take to even the playing field for families less fortunate than hers, one of the things she mentions are social networks. In-the-know affluent parents gather in play clubs and exclusive preschools, where they provide each other not only with support, but also with information, including ideas about child-rearing and tips on how to access opportunities for their kids that are likely to set them up for success later on.

Presented by

Sarah Garland is a staff writer at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University, and author of the forthcoming book Divided We Fail: The Story of an African American Community that Ended the Era of School Desegregation.

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