Lower-Income Children Raised in Counties With High Upward Mobility Display Fewer Behavioral Issues, Perform Better on Cognitive Tests

PRINCETON , N.J. (by B. Rose Kelly and Princeton University)—Children who grow up in urban counties with high upward mobility exhibit fewer behavioral problems and perform better on cognitive tests, according to a study led by Princeton University.

Children in these counties display fewer behavior problems at age 3 and show substantial gains in cognitive test scores between ages 3 and 9. Growing up in a county with higher intergenerational mobility reduces the gap between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children’s cognitive and behavioral outcomes by around 20 percent.

The study, published Aug. 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides further evidence that place, measured at the county level, has a significant influence over the economic prospects of children from low-income families.

“Broadly speaking, our findings suggest that the developmental processes through which place promotes upward mobility begin in childhood and depend on the extent to which communities enrich the cognitive and social-emotional skills of children from low-income families,” said contributing author Sara S. McLanahan, William S. Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

The study results are based on data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, of which McLanahan, who is founding director of the Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, is a principal investigator. The study is a population-based birth-cohort study of children born in 20 large U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000.

The new research builds upon a series of papers by economist Raj Chetty of Stanford University and others who used income tax data to show that the economic prospects of children from low-income families depend on where they grow up. However, Chetty’s work does not explain why children growing up in some counties do better than others.

This question is what motivated McLanahan and her collaborators, which include lead author Louis Donnelly, Princeton University; Irv Garfinkel, Columbia University; Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University; Brandon Wagner, Texas Tech University; and Sarah James, Princeton University.

For their analyses, the researchers looked at 4,226 children from 562 U.S. counties whose developmental outcomes were assessed at approximately ages 3, 5 and 9 years old. The researchers divided these children into low- and high-income groups based on household income at birth. Children from low-income families were born in households earning below the national median household income (mean of $18,282), while children from high-income families were born in families earning above the national median (mean of $73,762).

Behavioral problems — like aggression and rule-breaking — were assessed by parents and teachers using the Child Behavior Checklist, a report used in both research and clinical settings, along with the Social Skills Rating Scale, a system that evaluates social skills, problem behaviors and academic competence. Cognitive abilities were assessed through a series of vocabulary, reading comprehension and applied problems tests in the children’s homes. Both assessments were collected as part of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that children from low-income families who grew up in counties with high upward mobility had fewer behavior problems and higher cognitive test scores when compared with children from counties with lower mobility. These differences were significant even after controlling for a large set of family characteristics, including parents’ race/ethnicity, education, intelligence, impulsivity and mental health.

Children who grow up in counties with higher intergenerational mobility show steady gains in test scores between ages 3 and 9, compared to those who grow up in counties with lower intergenerational mobility. These gains first appear at age 5 and accumulate over time, which is consistent with the argument that high-quality pre-K and elementary schools are an important part of what makes growing up in a high-mobility county beneficial, the researchers wrote.

The pattern for behavioral problems was somewhat different. For this outcome, the advantages associated with being raised in a county with high intergenerational mobility appear by age 3 and neither grow nor decline after that.

These two findings — early appearance and the lack of cumulate effects – do not point to specific community institutions that cause fewer behavioral problems. However, according to the authors, community factors that may account for these findings include programs that affect children directly, such as access to high-quality health care or preschool, or programs that affect children indirectly by reducing parents’ economic insecurity, like housing.

Importantly, for children from high-income families, growing up in a county with high intergenerational mobility is weakly associated with most developmental outcomes, which suggests that conditions favorable for disadvantaged children’s development do not come at the expense of advantaged children’s development.

The paper, “Geography of intergenerational mobility and child development,” was published in PNAS on Aug. 14.

Funding for this study was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Funding for the Fragile Families Study was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grants R01HD36916, R01HD39135 and R01HD40421 and by a consortium of private foundations.

(Posted: Wednesday, August 16, 2017 at 3:30 PM as a guest post and press release Full credit:

B. Rose (Huber) Kelly
Communications Manager & Senior Writer
Princeton University
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
205 Robertson Hall, Princeton NJ, 08544)


Pictures: first is mine, 2010 visit to Princeton; second supplied by author of the Woodrow Wilson School


Schools are re-segregating, a trend difficult to reverse


US schools are gradually resegregating themselves, despite two terms with its first African-American president. That’s the story in the Washington Post on Wednesday, May 18, 2016, “On the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, New data shows S.E. schools are resegregating” by Emma Brown.

Indeed, the famous case with the Topeka, KS public school system was settled May 17, 1954.   I would enter “junior high school” (seventh grade then) in Arlington VA that fall.  Our General Education teacher (English and social studies were combined then through ninth grade) taught us the facts relatively early in the school year starting in September of 1955, when I had turned 12.  We wrote little papers on it. We learned about the paradox of “separate but equal”.  But the courts allowed desgregation to proceed “With All Deliberate Speed“, as with a 2004 film by Peter Gilbert. We all remember the bitter battles over school integration in the South in the early to mid 60s.


But in the Arlington school system (in the 50s), there were very few non-white students (and those could include a few Asians, Hispanics and native Americans  — in fact, a distant relative on my father’s side was half native, and I don’t know whether I have any of that heritage or not).  The high school, Washington-Lee, where I would graduate in June 1961, was one of the top ten public high schools in the United States at the time, shortly after Sputnik when President Kennedy was pushing aerospace education.  There was a vague, rarely spoken, fear, that forced integration could force the lowering of academic standards.

In the mid 1960s, when I went to George Washington University while “living at home” and worked a summer job in the Navy Department, there was a lot of talk about “forced bussing”.  My feeling was, as a student, I wouldn’t have time to be bussed around just to force an arbitrary balance in students according to membership in a class defined by a superficial biological characteristic of no functional importance or significance.  We all knew that then. (Actually, we are all “black” because the first modern humans came from Africa. When I got to the Army in 1968, I quickly saw racial progress;  many of the drill sergeants were black. (Truman had done something about that in 1948, as in the well-acted HBO film with Gary Sinese.)


But just recently (a half-century later), there was a court order forcing two middle schools in Cleveland, MS to consolidate.

When I worked as a substitute teacher in Fairfax County and Arlington school systems (2004-2005; 2007), schools seem to have a population that followed the areas in which they were located.  There were more blacks and Hispanics in the southern parts of these counties.  Generally, it seemed as if Hispanic students had the most difficulty with school.  But on a couple of occasions, I ran into discipline issues, one of which conceivably could have been gang-related.  I give details here.


It’s obvious that in many communities, normal funding of schools is not sufficient.  In Detroit, teachers were threatened with simply having pay cut off, and staged a sickout, until resolution, CNN story.

In “The Upshot” in the New York Times today, Kevin Carey explains “The uproar over trying to help poor schoolchildren“, with the narrative of John King, Jr., secretary of education.

(Published on Thursday, May 19, 2016, at 8:45 PM EDT)