David Brooks has a theory about the cause of rising American social inequality. Well-off parents invest more money and time in their children.
Over the past generation, members of the college-educated class have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status. They have also become devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.
How they’ve managed to do the first task — giving their own children a leg up — is pretty obvious… Over the past few decades, upper-middle-class Americans have embraced behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life. As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids.
Upper-middle-class moms have the means and the maternity leaves to breast-feed their babies at much higher rates than high school-educated moms, and for much longer periods… [and] to spend two to three times more time with their preschool children than less affluent parents.
Brooks then makes some remarks about informational barriers between social classes. He somehow misses that there is a simple policy that would help reduce the class difference in the time that American parents invest in their children. We could give every family, not just those with means, a paid leave when they have a newborn child.
It’s a straightforward way to invest in children and nearly every developed country other than the US does it. In Canada, families get 55% of a parent’s income for a year, up to a maximum, when you have a newborn (it’s not a ‘maternity’ leave, because the father can take it, or you can split it between spouses).
Giving everyone a year with their infant won’t make all children equal. However, there is considerable evidence that early childhood is of great importance for children’s health and development and that paid maternity leave contributes to better child health.
We may not know how to tear down psychological barriers between social classes. However, we know how to give parents more time to raise young children.