If poor parents are falling further behind rich parents, how are poor kids closing the gap? The researchers offer several explanations, like increased enrollment among state-funded preschools and low-income parents spending more time with their kids.
But here is another sudden and surprising trend that might be a factor: a great reduction in teen pregnancy between 2007 and 2013. A new study in the Journal of Adolescent Health concluded that teenagers aren’t having less sex, but they are having fewer babies, because of a significant increase in contraceptives. Reported use of the pill, condoms, IUDs, and even the withdrawal method all increased substantially in the last nine years. The key statistic: The number of teens who self-reported using no contraception fell from 20 percent to 13 percent.
This is a huge deal: The number of sexually active American teenagers using no contraception fell by 35 percent in just seven years. Meanwhile, the teen birth rate has fallen almost 50 percent since 1990.
Why might a reduction in teen pregnancy lead to higher achieving poor kids? Unintended pregnancies are concentrated among poor and less educated mothers who are younger, not married, and often not ready to devote the amount of time, money, and attention to children that rich married couples can. With better contraceptive use, poor women can plan to have children only when they’re ready to raise them.
For the past four decades, the income gap isn’t the only chasm that has opened between the rich and poor. There is also what sociologist Robert Putnam calls “Goodnight Moon time.” Rich parents spend more time with their kids, and this time make a huge difference in early childhood.
In the 1970s, rich and poor mothers both had children in their early 20s. More recently, however, college graduates become moms in their late 20s or early 30s, on average, while moms with just a high-school education or less become moms at the average age of 19, according to Putnam’s book Our Kids. "Children of less educated parents are increasingly entering the world as an unplanned surprise (complete or not, pleasant or not), while children of more educated parents are increasingly entering the world as a long-planned objective," Putnam wrote.
The fact that an enormous number of poor kids arrive as “surprises” has two important implications. The first is that poor kids don’t just have less money, they have fewer dedicated parents, too. An astonishing 65 percent of all mothers with no more than a high-school degree are unmarried at the time of their child's birth; that figure has tripled since 1980. (By comparison, 90 percent of new moms who finished college are married.) Too often, rich kids have two intentional parents armed with childrearing books and newfangled toys for infants, while poor kids have one accidental parent armed with none of that.