Research News

Studying Economic Inequality Among American Children

IPR social demographer Christine Percheski looks at how net worth varies across families

mother and child
Single-mother families were much less likely to have positive net worth than were married couples.

While much research has been devoted to income inequality, researchers have paid less attention to wealth inequality, or the gap in net worth between families—though wealth disparities could affect families just as much as those in income, according to IPR social demographer Christine Percheski.

“There are a lot of reasons to suspect that wealth really affects kids’ access to resources and families’ ability to buffer economic downturns, as well as to finance higher education,” Percheski said.

Christine Percheski

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Percheski and her colleague, Duke’s Christina Gibson-Davis, are measuring differences in wealth inequality among families with children from 1989–2013, using data from the Survey of Consumer Finance.

Though the project is still in its early stages, the researchers have already discovered that inequality in net worth has been growing since 1989 for families with children under 18. And wealth inequality is growing faster for households with children than for households without children.

They have also found that gaps in net worth vary widely depending on the type of family: Married couples were much more likely to have positive net worth than single-mother families, and were slightly more likely to have positive net worth than families with unmarried cohabiting parents, and families with a divorced mother.

These preliminary results offer insight into the types of families that might benefit most from policy interventions. Eventually, the researchers also plan to examine little-researched aspects of income inequality, such as how taxes and social welfare programs like food stamps affect family income and the income gaps between families with different characteristics.

“We should be concerned with families that do not have savings, and single mother families are particularly likely to not have savings,” Percheski said. “Families who do not have savings … have less ability to invest in their children’s futures.”

Christine Percheski is assistant professor of sociology and an IPR fellow.

Photo credit: mrhayata, Flickr.