Family Disadvantage and the Gender Gap in Behavioral and Educational Outcomes (WP-15-16)


David Autor, David Figlio, Krzysztof Karbownik, Jeffrey Roth, and Melanie Wasserman

U.S. women graduate from high school at higher rates than U.S. men, but the female-male educational advantage is larger, and has increased by more, among black students and students of low socioeconomic status (SES) than among white and high-SES students. The authors explore why boys fare worse than girls in low-SES households—both behaviorally and educationally—by exploiting matched birth certificates, health, disciplinary, academic, and high school graduation records for more than 1 million children born in Florida between 1992 and 2002. They account for unobserved family heterogeneity by contrasting outcomes of opposite-sex siblings linked to birth mothers by using administrative records. Relative to their sisters, boys born to low-education and unmarried mothers, raised in low-income neighborhoods, and enrolled at poor-quality public schools have a higher incidence of truancy and behavioral problems throughout elementary and middle school, exhibit higher rates of behavioral and cognitive disability, perform worse on standardized tests, are less likely to graduate high school, and are more likely to commit serious crimes as juveniles. The authors argue that the family disadvantage gradient in the gender gap is a causal effect of the postnatal environment: Family disadvantage has no relationship with the sibling gender gap in neonatal health, measured by birth weight, APGAR scores (a test given right after birth to quickly assess a baby’s health), prenatal-care adequacy, congenital anomalies, maternal health, and labor and delivery complications. Although family disadvantage is strongly correlated with schools and neighborhood quality, the SES gradient in the sibling gender gap is almost as large within schools and neighborhoods as it is between them. A surprising implication of these findings is that, relative to white siblings, black boys fare worse than their sisters in significant part because black children—both boys and girls—are raised in more disadvantaged family environments.

David Autor, Professor of Economics and Associate Department Head, MIT; and Faculty Research Associate, National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

David Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and of Economics; Director and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University; and Faculty Research Associate, NBER

Krzysztof Karbownik, IPR Postdoctoral Fellow, Northwestern University

Jeffrey Roth, Research Professor of Pediatrics, College of Medicine, University of Florida

Melanie Wasserman, Doctoral Student in Economics, MIT

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