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Why Are Poor Kids More Likely to Graduate Than Foster Kids?

Research helps explain how poverty and instability affect children's future.

Image by Macant on Flickr
Source: Image by Macant on Flickr

This article titled “Throwaway Kids,” about the effects of foster care, reports survey results from nearly 6,000 prison inmates.

The survey found that one in four prison inmates said they'd spent time in foster care. "Some spent the majority of their childhood in strangers’ homes, racking up more placements than birthdays.”

The average placement is less than one year. When I was a kid, I lived in seven homes over the course of about five years.

In the Los Angeles County foster care system (my beloved alma mater), only 64.5 percent of foster kids graduate from high school. Maybe not so surprising.

More surprising, though, is that kids from low-income families in LA have the same high school graduation rates as the average.

The overall high school graduation rate in Los Angeles is 86.6 percent. The graduation rate for students categorized as “socioeconomically disadvantaged” is also 86.6 percent.

The gap between poor kids and foster kids exists nationwide, too; 72.4 percent of kids across the U.S. in the lowest socioeconomic quintile graduate from high school. In contrast, nationwide, only 58 percent of foster kids graduate from high school.

What about college? Some 11 percent of kids in the bottom socioeconomic quintile graduate from college. For foster kids : 3 percent. The college graduation rate for poor kids is nearly four times higher than for foster kids.

Incarceration rates are similar. About 8 percent of males from families in the bottom socioeconomic quintile do time in prison or jail. For males who were in foster care: 60 percent. The incarceration rate for foster kids is almost eight times higher than for poor kids.

Consider that to become foster parents, people must meet a minimum economic threshold. They can’t be poor.

This means kids in foster care are not in as materially impoverished an environment as kids in the bottom income quintile.

What explains the gap in graduation and incarceration rates between foster kids and poor kids? There are many reasons.

One reason worth highlighting comes from a widely-cited academic paper in Developmental Psychology titled, “Evolution, Stress, and Sensitive Periods: The Influence of Unpredictability in Early Versus Late Childhood on Sex and Risky Behavior.”

The researchers used a longitudinal data set. In the 1970s, women at a public health clinic agreed to respond to questions that tracked both themselves and their then-unborn children.

Both the mothers and, later, their children, responded to questionnaires at multiple time points until the children reached early adulthood.

The researchers were interested in how two different environmental factors affected five key variables.

One environmental factor was the rate of environmental harshness children experienced before age 5.

Researchers measured environmental harshness by the mother’s socioeconomic status, occupational prestige, and household income. How materially comfortable was the kid?

The other environmental factor was the rate of environmental unpredictability children experienced before age 5.

The researchers measured environmental unpredictability by number of changes in residence (e.g., moving to a different house/apartment) changes in cohabitation status (e.g., whether and how often male romantic partners moved in or out of the house/apartment) and changes in employment status.

In short, how often the kid moved, how frequently the adults in the kid’s life appeared and disappeared, and how frequently his mom changed jobs. How chaotic was the kid’s life?

And the researchers wanted to know how these two factors influenced five outcome variables:

  • Age at first intercourse
  • Number of lifetime sexual partners by age 23
  • Criminal acts
  • Aggression (e.g., “I deliberately try to hurt others,” “I destroy things belonging to others”)
  • Delinquency (frequency of lying/cheating, breaking rules, setting fires, stealing, drug use)

Researchers found that childhood poverty (harshness) was not significantly associated with any of these five outcome variables.

In contrast, childhood instability was significantly associated with number of sexual partners, aggressive behavior, delinquent behavior, and criminal behavior in adulthood.

For males, but not females, instability predicted having sex at an earlier age.

The correlation between unpredictability in childhood and criminal behavior in adulthood was particularly striking (r = .40, p < .01). This correlation is roughly the same size as the correlation between socioeconomic status and SAT scores.

The educated class loves to talk about the effect of wealth on test scores. Seldom do they discuss the effect of instability in childhood giving rise to harmful behaviors in adulthood.

The researchers re-analyzed the data while controlling for harshness. The relationship between instability in childhood and harmful behaviors in adulthood remained significant.

They conclude their discussion:

“The findings revealed that the strongest predictor of both sexual and risky behavior at age 23 was exposure to an unpredictable environment during the first five years of life. Individuals exposed to more unpredictable, rapidly changing early environments displayed a faster life history strategy at age 23 as indicated by having more sexual partners, having sex at an earlier age (for males only) engaging in more aggression and delinquent behaviors, and being more likely to be associated with criminal activities/behavior. By contrast, exposure to either harsh environments or experiencing unpredictability later in childhood (ages 6–16) did not significantly predict these outcomes at age 23.”

In short, being poor doesn't have the same effect as living in chaos.

There are some who will respond, "It's in the genes." I've addressed this before. Here I'll address it again.

Suppose there is a survey that measures how many people we punch each year.

Suppose each of us has a different innate propensity to punch others.

In a completely free environment with no norms or consequences, I would punch 10 people a year. And in this free environment, you would punch three people a year. A difference of seven people. Perhaps I am "genetically" more prone than you to punch.

Now suppose we both live in an environment with strong norms against punching. In this environment, people lose status for violence. And violent people experience swift and unfavorable consequences.

In this environment, I now punch only eight people a year, and you now punch only one. I am still punching seven more people than you each year. The gap is the same as it was before. But, and this is crucial, we are both punching fewer people than before.

In the free environment, on average, each of us punched six and a half people a year (I punch 10, you punch three; (10+3)/2 = 6.5).

In the rigid environment, we averaged four and a half people a year (I punch eight, you punch one; (8+1)/2 = 4.5).

Relative differences exist. But so do absolute differences. Those matter, too.