Economic Status and Socio-Emotional Development

Jason M. Fletcher and Barbara Wolfe, professors at Yale and University of Wisconsin-Madison respectively, recently published a working paper titled “The Importance of Family Income i the Formation and Evolution of Non-Cognitive Skills in Childhood,” which argues that socioeconomic status (SES) has more of an effect than previously realized on emotional,  and other non-cognitive skill development. This effect can be a determinant of future economic success, according to the researchers.

The researchers state that

Parental socioeconomic status is an important  determinant of achild’s future socioeconomic status (SES), and the pathway to this link is thought to be some combination of genes (inheritance), parental time investments in the child, access to marketed goods and services, community resources and other aspects of the home environment. The intermediate outcome of this combination of factors is a variety of forms of human capital, and ones most frequently studied are health and cognitive development (years of schooling and test scores, for example). Numerous papers have been written on poor non-poor gaps in health and school performance among children but far fewer on non-cognitive gaps by SES, even though evidence is accumulating that these non-cognitive skills may also be critically important as determinants of future success.

They conclude that socio-emotional deficits can be transmitted from one generation to the next and, therefore, contribute to cycles of poverty and economic distress.

These results are important for understanding the inter-generational transmission of poverty or SES more generally. They suggest that beyond those outcomes already studied (health and test scores or cognitive outcomes more generally) that family income also influences non-cognitive skills. These skills are themselves important in determining an individual’s success in schooling and in later employment outcomes. Non-cognitive skill differences seem to be an important route by which one’s family of origin influences one’s future family’s SES. How might public policy influence this link? One avenue may be the use of visiting nurses who have been shown to influence the parenting skills of low income mothers; another is preschool which also has been shown to positively influence the child’s non-cognitive skills, getting a child ready for school. These are the programs that have been tested; but having provided evidence of the importance of family income in determining non-cognitive skills it is time to develop programs that may more directly attempt to influence these skills as an additional pathway to attempt to break the inter-generational poverty link.


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