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Is history destiny? Resources, transitions and child attainments in Canada

TitleIs history destiny? Resources, transitions and child attainments in Canada
Year of Publication2002
AuthorsHoddinott, J., Lethbridge L., and Phipps S.
JournalHRSDC Applied Research Branch Working Paper Series
Date PublishedDecember
Keywordsbody weight, child attainments, child behaviour, cognitive, educational, educational attainment, educational policy, family financial resources, income, intervention, mathematics tests, outcomes of education, persistence, reading tests, role, school readiness, siblings

This paper examines three inter-related issues: whether past levels of resources, context and opportunity structures carry long-term consequences for subsequent child attainments and behaviours; whether shocks, or transition events, alter the path of these outcomes in a positive or negative fashion; and what role can be played by policy interventions in improving these attainments. In doing so, the paper examines the relationship between a child?s past, and who she becomes; that is to say, is her history her destiny? We use three cycles of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, fielded in 1994, 1996 and 1998 and analyse development for children in 4 cohorts: ?the babies? (aged 0 to 2 in 1994 and thus 4 to 6 in 1998); ?the pre-schoolers? (aged 4 to 5 in 1994); the ?middle-aged? children (aged 7 or 9 in 1994) and the ?oldest? children (aged 11 in 1994 and thus 15 in 1998). The child attainments studied here are principally from the cognitive domain: school readiness, measured by the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT), and education attainments, measured by tests of mathematics and reading ability. A descriptive analysis presents preliminary evidence of considerable persistence in child attainments over time. For example, we show that children who were ?low birth-weight babies? in 1994 are twice as likely to have PPVT scores in the bottom quintile 4 years later; 39 percent of children who at age 4 or 5 had low PPVT scores were then observed to have reading scores 4 years later which placed them in the bottom 20 percent. Using a multivariate framework, we then consider the association between household resources and long-term child cognitive attainments. Specifically, we estimate the link between child, maternal and household characteristics in 1994 with attainments in 1998; we then complement this analysis by adding child 1994 attainment as a predictor of 1998 attainment; finally we consider the consequences of transition events such as the development of a child?s activity limitation, the acquisition or loss of full or step siblings, changing school or care giver, marriage, divorce and the household moving into or out of poverty. Results suggest that characteristics of the mother have important associations with long-term child attainments. Mother?s education level is particularly important. Household income in 1994 also has consistent associations, although the magnitude of this effect is small. However, we emphasize that the cumulative effect of bundles of household characteristics which often occur together is large. For example, a ?disadvantaged? child? ? one with a young mother who has not completed high school living in a household at the 25th percentile of income in 1994 ? obtains scores on the mathematics test in 1998 that are 13 to 22 per cent lower than an ?advantaged child? ? one with an older mother possessing a university degree living in a household at the 75th percentile of income in 1998. By contrast, apart from presence of an activity limitation, observable child and neighbourhood characteristics, as well as other parental characteristics ? including marital status - have little systematic impact on these attainments. Strikingly, none of the observed transition events have a substantive effect on these outcomes. finally, multivariate analysis again shows clear evidence of persistence in child attainments over time. This persistence across time is robust to the inclusion of child, parental and household characteristics as well as to estimation techniques that account for potential endogeneity (or ?reverse causation?). Thus, past child attainments have a statistically significant relationship with future achievements and, in many cases, the association is very large. We illustrate these findings mean that past disadvantage can ?snowball? into ever larger problems for the child over time. A policy implication of these findings is the general importance of directing economic resources to families with young children (which would include supporting educational attainment for parents). Given the strong evidence of persistence in child educational outcomes, it seems very important to do everything possible to set children onto the best possible developmental path early in life. It would also be advisable to identify ?at risk? children (e.g., those with low PPVT scores at school entry) and direct remedial attention to these children as soon as possible.

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