Study Snapshot: Changes in Income-Based Gaps in Parent Activities with Young Children
Study Snapshot: Changes in Income-Based Gaps in Parent Activities with Young Children

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Victoria Oms,
(202) 238-3233

Study Snapshot: Changes in Income-Based Gaps in Parent Activities with Young Children

Study: “Changes in Income-based Gaps in Parent Activities with Young Children from 1988-2012”
Authors: Ariel Kalil (University of Chicago), Kathleen Ziol-Guest (New York University), Rebecca M. Ryan (Georgetown University), Anna J. Markowitz (Georgetown University)

Published online August 2016 in the AERA peer-reviewed journal AERA Open

Main Finding:

Over the last 25 years, the income-based gap in children’s book ownership and library attendance decreased, while the gap grew for parental behaviors such as reading and telling stories to children and teaching children letters, words, and numbers. Income-based gaps in children’s participation in out-of-home cultural activities also increased, as top-income families pulled away from their middle- and low-income counterparts.


  • Using data drawn from four nationally representative studies—the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979–Maternal and Child Supplement; Panel Study of Income Dynamics–Child Development Supplement; National Household Education Surveys Program; and Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Birth Cohort—researchers were able to track shifts in eight parental activities between 1988 and 2012.

  • The studies asked parents to report how frequently they engaged in different in-home and out-of-home educational activities with their children, including reading daily with their children; teaching them letters, words, or numbers; telling stories; owning 10 or more children’s books; going to the zoo; visiting a museum; attending a concert or play; and visiting a library. Among the eight parental activities, income-based gaps narrowed for two literacy-based activities and increased for six activities.

  • “Our results show a mixed bag of class-based changes over time in young children’s learning environments,” said study co-author Ariel Kalil, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago. “On one hand there is positive news in that some aspects of low-income children’s literacy environments appear to be catching up. On the other hand, high-income children continue to pull ahead of their low-income peers on specific school readiness activities.”

  • Most growth in gaps was a result of top-income families increasing their behaviors at a faster rate than middle- and low-income families rather than a result of low-income families engaging in fewer educational activities. For example, although parents in all households increased their rates of reading daily with their children, parents in the top income group did so at a higher rate than parents in the middle or bottom group, causing the gap to increase by 12 percentage points.

  • “Although gaps like ‘reads daily’ increased over time, many more low-income parents are reading to their children today than 25 years ago,” Kalil said. “In fact, for many of our measures, the bottom 10 percent today looks like the top 10 percent 25 years ago, and this is good news.”

  • Gaps between high- and low-income households narrowed in children’s book ownership and in taking a child to the library. The gap in households that reported children owning 10 or more books decreased between 1988 and 2012 from 33 percentage points to 20 percentage points. The gap for taking a child to a library in the past month also decreased, from 24 percentage points in 1991 to 12 percentage points in 2012. As with the change in book ownership, this shift was driven primarily by low-income families increasing their activity.

  • The sharpest change in the income-based gap occurred in parents teaching their children letters words, or numbers. In 1991, parents in the lowest income group were 4 percentage points more likely to teach their children letters, words, or numbers than those in the top income group. However, by 2012, parents in the top income group were 5 percentage points more likely than low-income parents to teach these things to their children.

  • Income-based gaps in parents taking their children to a museum in the past month also increased from 10 percentage points to 23 percentage points between 1988 and 2007. Unlike other gap increases, this gap increased specifically due to households in the bottom and middle income groups reducing how frequently they visited museums, while households in the top income groups remained consistent.

  • Gaps grew across an additional three measures as well. The income-based gap among parents telling their child a story at least three times per week doubled between 1991 and 2012, increasing from 4 to 9 percentage points. Between 1991 and 2007, gaps among parents taking their child to a concert or play and taking a child to the zoo also increased, from 10 percentage points to 17 percentage points and from 1 percentage point to 15 percentage points, respectively.

  • Of the six categories that showed increased gaps, three of the gaps—reading daily, teaching letters and numbers, and telling stories to children—have plateaued since 2005.

  • Funding note: Support for this research came from the National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

To see the full study, click HERE.

Periodically, AERA will send out a brief overview, or snapshot, of a recent study that has been published in one of its peer-reviewed journals. AERA's "Study Snapshots" provide a high-level glimpse into new education research.

To speak with study author Ariel Kalil, please contact Tony Pals at or Victoria Oms at

About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on Facebook and Twitter.

To browse more recent AERA research, click here.

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