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Tackling Income Inequality Might Boost Vocabulary Of Low-income Children: Study

The study's preliminary results lend credence to developmental and educational benefits of poverty-cutting government programs.

CALIFORNIA CITY, Calif. — A new study says that the vocabulary gap in low-income children might have a direct relation with the income inequality faced by such families.

The findings, published in the journal Developmental Science, provide the first evidence that parents may talk less to their kids when experiencing financial scarcity.

“We were interested in what happens when parents think about or experience financial scarcity and found evidence that such strain could suppress their speech to their children,” said senior author Mahesh Srinivasan, a professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Our results suggest that parenting training may not be sufficient to close the academic achievement gap without addressing the broader issue of income inequality.”

The study’s preliminary results focus on the developmental and educational benefits of such poverty-cutting government programs as the federal American Rescue Plan’s Child Tax Credit and other supplemental cash payouts for needy families.

“Existing interventions toward eliminating the word gap have often focused on improving parenting skills,” Srinivasan said.

“But our findings suggest that relieving parents of their financial burdens, such as through direct cash transfers, could also substantially change the ways they engage with their kids.”

In the first experiment, researchers sought to observe how parents would interact with their children (in this case, 3-year-olds) after the parents were asked to describe times in which they had recently experienced scarcity. A control group of parents was instead asked to describe other recent activities.

Of the 84 parents in the study, the parents who described their experiences of financial scarcity spoke less to their 3-year-olds during laboratory observations than parents who reflected on other forms of scarcity (like not having enough fruit) or parents who had not been asked to recollect experiences of resource insecurity.

The second experiment used existing data collected via LENA technology, tiny “talk pedometer” devices worn by children that record their conversations and count the words they hear and say.

Parents engaged in fewer conversational turns with their children at a month’s end, a time that typically coincides with money being tight as parents await paychecks or other sources of income, the research said.

“Because we had recordings from the same parents at different times of the month, we could essentially use parents as their own controls,” said lead author Monica Ellwood-Lowe, a Ph.D. student in Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

“This allowed us to really pinpoint differences in their speech patterns when they were more or less likely to be experiencing financial strain, independent of any of their own personal characteristics.”

The term “word gap” was coined in the early 1990s when University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley tracked verbal interactions in the homes of 42 families to study early language development in the children’s first three years.

Each day, the researchers recorded an hour of conversation in each household, then counted all the words the children heard during those recording times.

The results were detailed in their 1995 book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, and in a 2003 follow-up article, “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.”

While some have questioned Hart and Risley’s methodology, their basic finding has been replicated many times, prompting calls for approaches to narrow the disparity.

“It struck us that what was missing from the conversation about the word gap was the possibility that poverty, and the many difficult experiences associated with it, could itself affect parents’ speech,” Srinivasan said.

“This research doesn’t mean that children whose parents are struggling financially are doomed to have smaller vocabularies,” Ellwood-Lowe said. “The takeaway here is really just the importance of making sure parents have the resources they need to parent.”

“If you are worried about putting food on the table tonight, or scraping together money for that medical bill, or figuring out where to enroll your child in school now that you have been evicted from your neighborhood, you may be less likely to narrate the color of the sky to your child as you ride together on the bus,” the study said.

(With inputs from ANI)

(Edited by Abinaya Vijayaraghavan and Praveen Pramod Tewari)

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