Panel Paper: Family Expenditures Supporting Poor Children's Success Across Rural, Suburban, and Urban Communities

Friday, November 7, 2014 : 10:15 AM
Santa Ana (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Rebekah Levine Coley, Jacqueline Sims and Alicia Doyle Lynch, Boston College
Research has unearthed significant repercussions of poverty for children, including lower academic success and heightened psychological and physical health problems. One of the primary mechanisms through which poverty is hypothesized to affect children is by inhibiting access to enriching resources. With fewer economic assets, poor parents invest less in their children: fewer books and educational toys; less enriching schooling contexts; fewer musical and athletic activities.

The degree to which families’ monetary resources affect investments in children may be moderated by the broader context in which children are embedded, particularly whether they live in rural, suburban, or urban communities. For example, there is notable variability in cost of living across the US: when basic necessities such as housing are more expensive, families will have less expendable resources to devote to investments in children.  Communities also differ in the accessibility of child- related resources.  Moreover, community norms may influence family preferences in resource expenditures. We argue that these processes likely vary across urbanicity.  That is, rural, suburban, and urban areas experience variability in resource accessibility, cost of living, and norms which we hypothesize will translate into distinct patterns in families’ expenditures on developmentally-promotive investments.

This project will analyze 10 years of data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey (CE) to assess how families across the rural-urban continuum invest in child-related resources, basic needs, and other expenditures.  Each year, the CE interviews a nationally-representative selection of households to record up to 12 months of expenditure. We will focus solely on households with children, demarcating families living in rural, small town, suburban, small urban, and large urban areas.  We group household expenditures categorically, delineating expenditures reflecting (1) direct investments in children (e.g., early, primary, and secondary education); (2) basic needs (e.g., housing and utilities) and (3) extras (e.g., entertainment). Expenditures are coded both as a total dollar amount and as a proportion of total spending.

Initial results in Table 1 (drawn from one year of CE data) indicate that suburban poor families spend more on child-related expenses in terms of dollar amount, whereas poor rural and low-income small town families spend the least. Table 2 provides initial data on specific categories of expenditures, finding, for example, that suburban poor families spend more on early childhood and tertiary educational expenses than do poor families in other contexts. 

Together, these results will help to identify mechanisms through which urbanicity and poverty intersect to affect the investments children receive. This work has policy implications at multiple levels. Results will identify where children have limited access to enriching resources, suggesting the need for enhanced public supports such as libraries and free school activities.  Results also will delineate where parents spend the most on educational expenses, providing information on the need for enhancements in subsidies for poor families.  Finally, this study will delineate where basic needs take up an abundance of family resources, highlighting where public resources could be most effective.