Poor little rich kids

By Chrystia Freeland
May 9, 2013

If you doubt that we live in a winner-take-all economy and that education is the trump card, consider the vast amounts the affluent spend to teach their offspring. We see it anecdotally in the soaring fees for private schools, private lessons and private tutors, many of them targeted at the pre-school set. And recent academic research has confirmed what many of us overhear at the school gates or read on mommy blogs.

This power spending on the children of the economic elite is usually — and rightly — cited as further evidence of the dangers of rising income inequality. Whatever your views about income inequality among the parents, inherited privilege is inimical to the promise of equal opportunity, which is central to the social compact in Western democracies.

But it may be that the less lavishly educated children lower down the income distribution aren’t the only losers. Being groomed for the winner-take-all economy starting in nursery school turns out to exact a toll on the children at the top, too.

First, the data on parental spending on education. There is a lively debate among politicians and professors about whether the economy is becoming more polarized and about the importance of education. Dismissing the value of a college education is one of the more popular clever-sounding contrarian ideas of the moment. And there are still a few die-hards who play down the social significance of rising income inequality.

When you translate these abstract arguments into the practical choices we make in our personal lives, however, the intellectual disagreements melt away. We are all spending a lot more money to educate our kids, and the richest have stepped up their spending more than everyone else.

In “Investing in Children: Changes in Parental Spending on Children, 1972–2007,” a study published this year in the journal Demography, the researchers Sabino Kornrich and Frank F. Furstenberg found that spending on children grew over the past four decades and that it became more unequal. “Our findings also show that investment grew more unequal over the study period: parents near the top of the income distribution spent more in real dollars near the end of the 2000s than in the early 1970s, and the gap in spending between rich and poor grew.”

Dr. Kornrich and Dr. Furstenberg warn that social mobility is in jeopardy. “In the race to the top, higher-income children are at an ever greater advantage because their parents can and do spend more on child care, preschool, and the growing costs of postsecondary education,” they write. “Thus, contemporary increases in inequality may lead to even greater increases in inequality in the future as advantage and disadvantage are passed across the generations through investment.”

They are right to worry. But it turns out that the children being primed for that race to the top from preschool onward aren’t in such great shape, either.

That is the conclusion of research by Suniya S. Luthar, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Dr. Luthar stumbled upon the subject of troubled rich kids. “I was looking for a comparison group for the inner-city kids,” Dr. Luthar told me. “And we happened to find that substance use, depression and anxiety, particularly among the girls, were much higher than among inner-city kids.”

That accidental discovery set Dr. Luthar on a research path that has prompted her to conclude that the children of privilege are an “at-risk” group. “What we are finding again and again, in upper-middle-class school districts, is the proportion who are struggling are significantly higher than in normative samples,” she said. “Upper-middle-class kids are an at-risk group.”

Dr. Luthar’s findings are directly connected to the stepped-up spending on children’s education at the top that Dr. Kornrich and Dr. Furstenberg document. The title of the paper she is finishing, due to be published in the autumn, is “I Can, Therefore I Must: Fragility in the Upper Middle Class,” and it describes a world in which the opportunities, and therefore the demands, for upper-middle-class children are infinite.

“It is an endless cycle, starting from kindergarten,” Dr. Luthar said. “The difficulty is that you have these enrichment activities. It is almost as if, if you have the opportunity, you must avail yourself of it. The pressure is enormous.”

It can be tempting, particularly if you don’t happen to be raising children in one of the hothouse communities Dr. Luthar studies, to dismiss this hyper-education as a frivolous, albeit painful, form of conspicuous consumption, like cosmetic surgery or flashy cars. But the truth is that these parents and children are responding rationally to a hyper-competitive world economy.

“These are kids whose parents value upward mobility,” Dr. Luthar said. “When we talk to youngsters now, when they set goals for themselves, they want to match up to at least what their parents have achieved, and that is harder to do.”

It turns out that our children are feeling the same paradoxical strains of the 21st century we all are. Increasingly, we live in individualistic democracies whose credo is that anyone can be a winner if she tries. But we are also subject to increasingly fierce winner-take-all forces, which means the winners’ circle is ever smaller, and the value of winning is ever higher.

Dr. Luthar says the children she studies fear the price of losing would be psychic as well as economic — “What happens to me if I fall behind? I’ll be worth nothing.” In an age when more and more of the middle class is falling behind, no wonder they — and their parents — are at risk.

19 comments

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“…increasingly fierce winner-take-all forces…means the winners’ circle is ever smaller, and the value of winning is ever higher…if I fall behind? I’ll be worth nothing.” Dr. Luthar is spot on.

In recent decades productivity improvements made possible by personal computers and productivity software have eliminated millions of clerical, lower and middle management in each and every field. Computers and computerized robots now do much of the assembly and painting of automobiles and other complex products. These “jobs” weren’t “outsourced” or “offshored”. They are just GONE, forever, like manual looms and buggy whips.

Computers don’t join unions, get work breaks, overtime, vacations, sick leave, family leave, or pensions. From now on, every time the “minimum wage” or “health benefits” increase in cost to employers, the rate of work place automation will accelerate as automation becomes more and more cost effective. America (and the world) will need fewer and fewer “productive people” to keep our society running.

The problem is that computers and robots do not purchase goods and services. So the challenge will be to figure out to build and sustain a “consumer marketplace” in an essentially automated society. This nation and the world is going to have to figure out how to improve living standards with rapidly decreasing birth rates and NEGATIVE economic “growth”.

Can that be done? It HAS to be done, or our “big blue marble” will rapidly become a “big brown marble”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Poor little kids will never understand the fine art of succeeding without really trying.

Posted by hansrudolf | Report as abusive

Income inequality is the bane of our current economic system, or should I say, how we do capitalism. Excellent piece, by the way. You’re shining a light on a huge problem that is guaranteed to transform the US into something the world has never quite seen before, and it isn’t good. It’s not exactly a “third world economy,” but increasingly our economy is sharing many of the detrimental characteristics of a third world economy starting with, of course, extreme income inequality.

According to our own CIA, the US ranks at the top of income inequality among developed nations, beat out only by . . . Mexico? (If you count Mexico among developed nations.) Examples of countries that have LESS inequality (i.e., MORE equality) than the US are Uganda, Nigeria, Iran, and Kenya (to name just 4.) https://www.cia.gov/library/publications  /the-world-factbook/rankorder/2172rank. html

A lot of conservatives like to write off the impact of income inequality, usually blaming it on the difference between the hard working money makers and the lazy moochers who want the government to take care of them. (Not a very flattering opinion of their fellow Americans. But then who in the world DO America’s conservatives like?) The problem, as Ms Freeland points out, is immense and affects our country in a multitude of ways, far too many ways to go into here. Ms Freeland rightly focuses on education and upward mobility. With wealth disparity come an education disparity, which perpetuates an end to upward mobility, which feeds growing wealth inequality. It’s a vicious, downward spiral that will be increasingly difficult to reverse the more standardize and extreme it becomes.

One of the sad ironies to all of this is how conservatives contend that doing anything to reverse this destructive trend is antithetical to a market-based capitalist system. I think the opposite is true. I believe that a economic system is only as good as the percentage of people it benefits. I’d be a communist if I believed it was the most beneficial to the most people. I don’t. I give that label to well-regulated capitalism, but not laissez faire capitalism like conservatives and libertarians espouse. That is a path that will guarantee the eventual end to capitalism because it will eventually force the masses to overthrow the system just for their own survival. That’s the way it’s worked throughout history.

Many conservatives and libertarians deceive themselves into thinking that capitalism is something that exists as automatic and natural as nature, that man should just leave it alone and just enjoy its fruits, like getting a cup of water from a stream and gathering the nuts and berries it provides, providing one is willing to do the gathering. That’s insane, the result of carefully crafted manipulation meant to control the masses while maximizing their wealth.

Capitalism is a man made system, like all economic systems, and the rules–and there are rules–have been adjusted by the rich to benefit the rich. Those rules are what need changing. Our past offers us a blueprint for our future. And don’t get me started on what I think the permeation of our über-capitalist thinking is doing to the ethics of our society where the mindset seems to be that everything has a price, and if it doesn’t it’s worthless.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive

The problems is far more complex than described in this article. Dumping additional funds into education, whether for teachers’ salary, infrastructure, or books, will have marginal benefit, unless parents become interested and involved in the education of their children. Wealthier children do have a leg up, but that does not mean middle and lower class kids cannot receive a quality education from schools less well funded. So, let’s come at this problem from multiple angles.

As to wealthier kids being at risk due to the stress of parental and peer expectations, so what? We now occupy a time in which stress (whether from expectations, financial, overwork, or the never-ending quest to be busy) must be at unprecedented levels. It is widespread across age, economic, and social strata of our society.

Posted by bald1 | Report as abusive

Our public education system is worthless. Many many kids are just passed from grade to grade without learning anything except that the teachers don’t care.

Posted by thephantom225 | Report as abusive

What is really at stake is called “affinity” — the group we see ourselves as part of. It is the answer to the question “Who are you?”

In the USA the answer increasingly “an employee of the corporate State”. Perhaps “possession” is a more accurate term. An asset and / or a liability.

If you measure everything in interchangeable measures, such as money, there is no difference. We are all “equal”. But some of us are discarded and some of us choose who to discard and who to exploit. It all comes down to “property” and who controls it.

Will people accept being property again? What kind of system is that? Mostly what we have here is an exploitation of a very different system, with avarice raised to the pinnacle of “good”. When belief in the fictional “equal” society flags, can the exploitative one survive?

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

Yeh! They are the targets of drug sales people, quack doctors and psychologists, people looking for rich sex partners, etc. The rich who have less brains then money was and always will be the target of sales people.

The Romanoffs (Czar’s) family had such reputation. Hitler had doctors that make him a drug addict.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Your researcher’s findings reflect better healthcare for rich kids and more disposable income for dope than genuine pathology associated with privilege. Calculus gave me anxiety too, but I grew up on welfare so I couldn’t get any Xanax. Stick with the facts: the concentration of wealth is giving the middle class a dose of their own discriminatory medicine. Fortunately, this means new opportunities for progressive coalitions that now can transcend race.

Posted by mrisaac | Report as abusive

@flashrooster,

“A lot of conservatives like to write off the impact of income inequality, usually blaming it on the difference between the hard working money makers and the lazy moochers who want the government to take care of them.”

Not really. There are many different segments of American society. Let’s define some primary ones.

A. Producers and Prior Producers (P, PP)
B. low or non-producers (LP, NP).

There are those that government SHOULD take care of:

1. Those disabled to such extent as they are unable to support themselves through no fault of their own. (PP or NP)

2. Those who have worked and paid into Social Security until they qualify to receive related monthly payments (NOT “entitlements”). (PP)

3. Those on unemployment that are looking in good faith for at least 10 hours a week for any work they can perform for the first 26 weeks of unemployment. (PP

4. Those willing to enter a retraining program to qualify them for EXISTING LOCAL JOBS. (PP)

There are those the government SHOULD NOT take care of:

1. The able-bodied low wage earner who would rather sit home than seriously look for steady “on-the-books” work. (NP)

2. The “perpetual victim class” of those that floated through school without gaining a degree or a marketable skill. (NP)

3. The “single parent” that expects society to support THEIR family. (LP or NP)

4. The low income “family” ceaselessly reproducing that expects society to support every new addition to THEIR family. (LP or NP)

5. Those who only work enough a week to make their beer money and/or to re-qualify for more unemployment. (LP)

6. Those who choose and earn one or more degrees that no employer wants or needs. (NP)

No one who has observed a young, trim, attractive female get a flat or run out of gas could possibly believe that a middle-aged, overweight, unattractive female will receive an “equal” number of “equal” offers of assistance. Life just isn’t “fair” that way.

Is that inequality EVER going to “transform the US into something the world has never quite seen before”? Of course not. That’s just the way things are in the “real world”. Most accept it and “move on” with their life.

It is similarly the “way of the world” that highly educated, talented, skilled, and/or innovative doctors, lawyers, business owners, executives, inventors, writers, artists of all kinds, and sports champions are paid much more than the “average” within their profession.

Those who comprise the bottom within a given profession often have to find work outside it to survive. We don’t typically “reward” ditch diggers, janitors, retail clerks, fast food workers with wide salary ranges because anyone willing can learn such jobs in a week or two and there are more applicants than such jobs.

So “income inequality” is just the way things are in the “real world”. Most accept it. “Income equity” has never been more than an idealistic aspiration, a mirage no economy has ever achieved. Such inequality is NEVER going to “transform the US into something the world has never quite seen before”. YOU FEW indignant ones goad others, but will never dirty your own hands or take personal risks.

YOU “…believe that a economic system is only as good as the percentage of people it benefits?” Who cares what you believe? “I’d be a communist if I believed it was the most beneficial to the most people.” Why am I not surprised?

“…laissez faire capitalism…will…eventually force the masses to overthrow the system just for their own survival.” Yep, spoken like a true communist. But it is not historically true. “Pure” capitalism brought about the “managed inequities” at the beginning of the twentieth century. The people elected Teddy Roosevelt and his “Trust Busters” set about re-leveling the playing field.

“Well-regulated capitalism” results from “harnessing the beast” for the greatest benefit…i.e. the best balance between the interests of those employed and those whose money, minds, skills, inventiveness, and/or perseverance create and maintain the means of said employment.

But “business” exists for one reason and one reason only…PROFIT. No matter how many “jobs” business creates, if no profit results from everyone’s “contribution” that business is restructured or fails.

Whether the system of government be tribalism, monarchy, fascism, socialism, communism or capitalism it has always been the case that just about everything that is not worthless has a price. That price has usually been determined by supply and demand. Get used to it!

When our government fails to create or maintain a well-fitted, comfortable harness (tax incentives and disincentives) for capitalism, the “prime mover” of our economy, the “answer isn’t “more government”. It is more competent, more efficient government.

Look around. Those areas long ruled by Democrats of questionable competence and efficiency are NOT typically today’s “success stories”. Yet “we, the people” keep electing those who keep doing the same things and expecting different results! THAT is what must change.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

OneOfTheSheep: Iran was once, what US is today. As you can see, there is always end of the lesez fair capitalism…you just need to learn history. Russia in the beginning of 20 century – great fast growing capitalism, then came the communism. And I can give you many more examples.

Posted by Ananke | Report as abusive

@OneOfthesheep
I agree with your views on income inequality. Though I have to say, there have been systems in past cultures that had total income equality, or at least something very close to such a system.
Cuba and the former Soviet Union, for example, use and used very regulated systems. This is common in very leftish, socialistic systems. The philosophy is that people work together for the benefit for the state, and if the state benefits they will benefit too.
Which sounds pretty great, yet is not.

One of the largest disadvantages in my opinion is that a large level of equality removes the incentive of greatness and innovation.
You see, in the US, everybody wants to be a rockstar. They want to be the next Warren Buffet, Richard Branson or Mark Zuckerburg (or at least the smart kids). This incentive, accompanied by the promise of wealth creates the a need to become more competitive and innovative.
If there were no such ‘reward’ for achieving greatness, greatness would no longer be achieved.

However, if you want to create a system that is better regulated through restructure I would not get my hopes up. I feel that a large disadvantage of a democratic system is that the masses truly rule, and that means that there will always be a very strong voice for the lower class, which tends to be much larger than the upper class. This translates into every government, which translates into legislation, which translates into economic disadvantages to those with the incentive for innovation and greatness.

Posted by theAntagonist | Report as abusive

Elites are inevitable. Lenin himself struggled to conceive of a practical way in which the state will eventually dissolve itself. Income inequality is also inevitable, take for instance Russia’s attempt of monetizing labor during the interwar period. The most devout socialists, of which it appears the author is a moderate variety, could not find a solution income inequality and or the imminent presence of an elite. Precluding children from well-off families to take advantage of the resources available to them in order to get a great education infringes on the very basic right of property, is, quite frankly, an act of barbarity in our day and age, and is inefficient considering the needs of the economic eco-system of a state, which requires neuro-surgeons as well as waitresses who will serve the neuro-surgeon at a restaurant. The waitress does not need a college degree to serve tables, and the state does not need her to have a college degree so that she hopes to get a neuro-surgeon’s job while being dissatisfied with the state and going to protests. We must look at the bigger picture and understand that inequality makes it possible for the society to function.

Posted by _Historian | Report as abusive

Flashrooster you should get into politics you have a lot to contribute.

Posted by kiwibird | Report as abusive

Another thing to look at is the market difference not just in the cost of education, but in the methods of education available to the elite. Instead of modeling the public school system’s education on that of the most successful private schools, we bombard middle and low income students and teachers with high pressure standardized testing that is almost completely alien to the students in wealthy private schools. One of the reasons the U.S. appears to do so poorly on standardized tests to gauge global education, is that the best educated students don’t take the same tests, and if they do, it is rarely at the same frequency.

The form of elite education is vastly different than that of public education. This seems to indicate not just systemic inequality issues. Rather a design intended to provide the wealthy with an education that provides them the skill set to prepare them for roles as business and political leaders. Public education seems to be geared toward creating the wealthy’s workforce.

This is not to say that extraordinary individuals cannot overcome their sub standard education. The question is, should they?

Posted by ACBirch | Report as abusive

I see the downside of privilege in healthcare in adults as well: someone I know had a heart attack while out for a run. This is someone who is 60 and has approached health very proactively for decades — excellent weight, nutrition, exercise, social and family relationships all intact. But she was on calcium supplementation and Fosamax to proactively address osteoporosis (she was given the dubious diagnosis of “osteopenia,” which is a created condition care of Merck and Fosamax). An anomalous calcium blockage almost killed her. Her doctor has taken her off those meds and she now is in good health once again. Osteopenia is a non-disease that middle and upper class women in the U.S. seem to be experiencing in an epidemic, because they are fearful of the decline they saw in their mothers. It’s a false cure for a false disease.

Posted by RussKlettke | Report as abusive

This is the result of thinking that money is the answer to everything!

Posted by frdp | Report as abusive

Can you please support the following paragraph? There are no results reported elsewhere in the article that justify the conclusion.

“It can be tempting, particularly if you don’t happen to be raising children in one of the hothouse communities Dr. Luthar studies, to dismiss this hyper-education as a frivolous, albeit painful, form of conspicuous consumption, like cosmetic surgery or flashy cars. But the truth is that these parents and children are responding rationally to a hyper-competitive world economy.”

Posted by Kevin574 | Report as abusive

Sorry? These kids are “at-risk” for what – the dreaded mediocrity of middle-class? At risk for a degree from a respected state university rather than an Ivy League college? And that threat stresses them into drug abuse, depression, lack of achievement, and the therapist’s couch?

So their parents have benefited from the current system to the point that their kids can’t achieve the same prestigious status, no matter how much money they invest in education.

I grew up in an upper-middle to upper-class (and beyond) neighborhood, and I lived around the exact kind of kids this article references. Their issues are *all* about the prestige of success, so, yes, it is about flashy cars and designer clothing, mansions, manicured lawns and lofty job titles.

I heard for decades that the “less fortunate” were less fortunate *precisely because* they made bad choices; that the sky was the limit if you tried hard enough to make the most of what opportunities you have, or the American Dream, no matter your humble beginnings. If you weren’t one of the “haves” then it was your own fault for not trying. Okay. So they should just go out and try harder and they’ll achieve what they want, right? No? But that’s how it’s supposed to work for the rest of us.

Now they’re learning that inherited success isn’t a given within an economy that has been systematically destroyed by rampant, profit-at-all-cost, corporate greed and is now backfiring on them. Sort of cannibalistic in a roundabout way.

So, what should we do about these well-heeled, well-educated kids who are at-risk just like inner-city kids? A solution? Anybody?

I have one. How about a nice dose of “Welcome to the real world, boys and girls! Money Can’t Buy Happiness. Suck it up”.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

The problem is that government runs education and like all things that government touches it has deteriorated to the point of meaninglessness and worthlessness. Education has been hijacked so that schools are now political indoctrination centers.

Posted by AdamLazer | Report as abusive