Economic Disadvantage Hurts Boys More

A new study examines gender among kids who grew up in low-income households.
(Photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Oct 23, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

For children, the effects of poverty can manifest in surprising ways. Recent research shows that growing up in stressful economic conditions can disrupt brain development, alter behavior, and challenge emotions.

But for boys, on the whole, the outcome is worse.

That’s the takeaway from a report published this week by Northwestern University.

Researchers studied the health, academic, and disciplinary records of more than 1 million kids born in low-income households in Florida between 1992 and 2002. They found that boys born to single mothers with little education, living in low-income neighborhoods, and enrolled in poor-quality public schools experienced higher rates of truancy and behavioral issues into middle school compared with their sisters. The boys also showed higher rates of cognitive disability, scored lower on standardized tests, and were less likely to graduate from high school relative to girls. They were also more likely to encounter the juvenile justice system.

The gender gap in education only widens between black and Hispanic kids compared with their economically disadvantaged white counterparts. In high school, girls’ advantage over boys was 4.5 percentage points among whites but nearly double that for American-born Hispanics and 12.2 percentage points among blacks, the analysis found. The education gap between boys and girls depending on race continued through college: White women were 22 percent more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree than were white men, whereas the gap was more than 50 percent for blacks and Hispanics.

As the proportion of low-income working families continues to increase, the new findings underscore widening wealth inequality among racial groups in America. In 2013, white households had a median wealth 13 times that of black families—the largest economic gap between blacks and whites in the last 25 years, according to a Pew Research Center study. Four of every 10 American kids live in a low-income family or a family with income less than twice the Federal Poverty Threshold (under $50,000 a year for a family of four), according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

One explanation for boys being particularly vulnerable in single-mother, low socioeconomic households is that they lacked a father figure in the home. Researchers pointed to existing studies showing that parents typically spend more time with the child of their own sex—mothers with their daughters and fathers with their sons.

“It’s quite possible that daughters are drawing the lessons that I’m going to be the sole provider and the head of the family and take care of everything,” David Autor, one of the paper’s researchers and an economics professor at MIT, told The New York Times. “Sons could be drawing the lesson that the men I see around me are not working or committed fathers. They’re doing other stuff.”