Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Is the U.S. Really a Land of Opportunity for Children?

Declines in social mobility: A social justice issue in education.

 Rafaela Biazi/Unsplash
We need low-cost and high-quality education for all children in the U.S. to ensure social mobility.
Source: Rafaela Biazi/Unsplash

Every child has a right to high-quality education, which provides us with a solid foundation upon which we can build our lives.

High-quality and low-cost education is needed more than ever, now that we are six months into the global COVID-19 pandemic and the majority of public schools have not receiving the funding they need to reopen safely.

During these past few months, most children and teens have spent months robbed of opportunities outside the home to develop relationships with friends. And most children and teens have also been robbed of opportunities to learn from the expertise of their teachers, that which their parents just don't have even if they aren't trying to work simultaneously.

In terms of preschool-age children, those who experience high-quality daycare in early childhood, as well as more organized afterschool programs when they are of school age, show greater academic achievement in early adolescence (Vandell, Lee, Whitaker, and Pierce, 2018).

This is good news for children who attend high-quality preschools, but what about those children in the United States for whom high-quality preschool is unaffordable, or now as a result of the pandemic, simply unavailable?

Unlike many other economically developed countries that offer at least one year of government-funded preschool universally to all children, not all states in the US provide such programs (OECD, 2018). And those states in the U.S. that do fund universal preschool vary considerably by the amount they spend per child, with the data indicating that spending is related directly to preschool program quality, with quality being a predictor of children having better literacy and math skills that will help them achieve once they enter primary school (Bassok, Gibbs, & Latham, 2018; Friedman-Krauss et al., 2018).

The benefits of high-quality preschool then continue into adolescence if children’s elementary classroom environments are of high quality as well (Ansari & Pianta, 2018). Likely because public schools in the U.S. are inequitably funded (such as by local property taxes), research data show that the neighborhoods in which children grow up predict their college attendance and earnings, for better or worse (Chetty & Hendren, 2018).

Therefore, it is frustrating, but unfortunately not terribly surprising, that although the U.S. has been known as the "land of opportunity", our citizens in fact show less upward social mobility, or fewer opportunities to achieve greater economic changes from one generation to the next, than do citizens in other countries (Bratberg et al., 2018). That is, in prior generations, children were more likely to obtain greater years of education and experience greater work opportunities than their parents, but this is unfortunately no longer the norm in the U.S.

The results of the aforementioned study, which affirm that the government needs to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to "children are our future" by fully and equitably funding public schools, are available here.

Indeed, part of this safety net needs to include low-cost and high-quality education (from preschool through college), and a universal basic income that most other industrialized countries provide. The time for change is now.


Anthis, K. (2021). Child and Adolescent Development: A Social Justice Approach. San Diego, CA: Cognella.

Bassok, D., Gibbs, C. R., & Latham, S. (2018). Preschool and children’s outcomes in elementary school: Patterns changed nationwide between 1998 and 2010? Child Development.

Bratberg, E., Davis, J., Mazumder, B., Nyborn, M., Schnitzlein, D. D., & Vaage, K. (2018). A comparison of intergenerational mobility curves in Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the U.S. The Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 119(1), 72–101.

Chetty, R., & Hendren, N. (2018). The impacts of neighborhoods on intergenerational mobility I: Childhood exposure effects. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 133(3), 1107–1162.

Friedman-Krauss, A. H., Barnett, W. S., Weisenfeld, G. G., Kasmin, R., DiCrecchio, N., & Horowitz, M. (2018). The State of Preschool 2017: State Preschool Yearbook. National Institute for Early Education Research.

OECD. (2018). Engaging young children: Lessons from research about quality in early child care education, starting strong. OECD Publishing.

Vandell, D. L., Lee, K. T. H., Whitaker, A. A., & Pierce, K. M. (2018). Cumulative and differential effects of early child care and middle childhood out-of-school time on adolescent functioning. Child Development 91(1), 129–144. https://doi-org.