The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Inequality is making me a bad parent

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Who will level the global playing field? An image from Oxfam's "Even It Up" video. Watch it here: oxfamamerica.org/evenitup

The economy creates pressure and anxiety for parents and children.

I have some cute kids. Really cute. I’d post some photos here, but it would burn your eyes with cuteness and you wouldn’t be able to read the rest of this. So…

What I want to talk about is how parenthood is an increasingly high-pressure job in the “winner-take-all” economy.

Every parent wants their kid to succeed and hopes the next generation can achieve a life that’s progressively better than their own. But the rising inequality of this society is making it harder to envision a good life for your kids unless they’re launched (and more likely born) into the top tier; the top 10 percent, or maybe even the top 1 percent.

It used to be that mediocrity was actually pretty ok. But as the wedge between classes widens, you’re either on top, or you’re on the bottom. Given current trends, that reality will be much worse for our kids.

Now there’s economists showing that, “parents tend to turn kids into all-consuming projects in settings where a child can land anywhere on a spectrum of conditions from savage to cosseted, and where parents can influence that landing.”

In more equal countries, parents tend to be more relaxed and permissive. In more unequal places, there is greater distrust of society generally and of public institutions, like schools, in particular.

As a result, parents feel obligated to spend more time and money supplementing standard education, e.g. language classes, music, summer camps. This is true for both rich and poor families, though of course richer families have more to invest in their kids.[i] Between 1972 and 2006, poor families increased their spending to supplement and enrich their children’s education by 57 percent, while rich families increased their spending by 150 percent. Parents in richer families also spend more time with their kids doing educational and enriching activities…because they can; they have more flexible schedules and leisure time. Parents working in unsustainable, poverty-wage jobs are unable to make these investments.

The pressure on kids (from their parents) to perform and seek high attainment is intense and increasing and this seems even more true in the US, compared to other places. Children are afforded less time for play and more of kids’ time is dedicated to school, school work, and shopping. There’s plenty of reason to think that many of the things we do to our kids to “help” them – like make them do homework – doesn’t really make a difference and are just a sort of inter-generational punishment for the hopes and ambitions of parents. And this may be resulting in increasing amounts of anxiety and depression among kids.

Richer parents want to give their kids advantages, and they do. But this does also not necessarily give parents peace of mind. Both poorer and richer families feel stressed. Even families in the top 10 percent of wealth feel insecure. Many report they would need a net worth of $10 million or more to feel secure, which would thrust them into the top 1 percent of US households.

It’s a bit sad and shocking that people don’t feel secure – or think that they would feel secure – unless they were part of the elite 1 percent.

We are transmitting all this anxiety and ambition to our children. Only wanting the best for them, we’re pushing them to achieve with a vague idea that only if they’re in the top 1 percent will they really be economically secure.


[i] Not to mention that of course rich kids attend better/more prestigious pre-college schools where they are groomed for top tier colleges where they can make the right connections – a cycle of advantage perpetuating inequality that has nothing to do with merit, and certainly not equal opportunity.

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