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Study: Missouri's low-income kids today have less opportunity to climb out of poverty

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Judy Baxter, via Flickr
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In many ways, Missouri youth match the national averages in terms of lost opportunities to get ahead, a new study shows.

A new study shows low-income children in Missouri will have a harder time getting ahead compared with their wealthier peers than those in past decades.

The report "Gaps in Youth Opportunity by State," from the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, analyzes the nation and all 50 states on nine measures of opportunity that would help kids surpass the living situations of their parents. Those factors include: family income, parental education and employment, academic achievement, access to Advanced Placement courses, and participation in extracurricular activities. 

"It’s just another piece of information that speaks to how challenging it is to realize that American dream - if you work hard, you get ahead - if you happen to be born to parents of fewer resources," said study author Beth Mattingly. "It’s not just that we have growing inequality because some people work hard and there are tons of returns to that, but that there’s inequality that starts out much earlier in life in terms of the opportunities people are presented with."

But Mattingly said the study also shows how the gaps in opportunity vary from state to state over time.

"There is not the same story in every place," she said. "That the level of opportunity varies and the differences vary over time. The situation in Massachusetts is not same in North Dakota."

Still, Mattingly said in many ways, Missouri mirrors national trends, with a few differences:

  • In Missouri, the income gap between the highest and lowest earning families is growing at a faster rate than in the past, though at a slower rate than the national averages.
  • As in the rest of the country, the percentage of Missouri children in low-income or impoverished families has risen since 2000 after decades of relative stability.
  • The percentage of Missouri children of single parents with a high school education or less not only far exceeds that of kids with parents with a bachelor's or more, but that gap has widened since the 1980's and at a faster rate than the national gap.

"The story is a really dramatic take off for the highest income quintile, so that gap between the highest earners -  the top 20 percent - and the rest is really most dramatic," Mattingly said. "The gap has really grown in Missouri, but not as starkly as rest of nation."
But as far as academics, Mattingly calls Missouri a "higher achieving state, even though we still see those gaps between richer kids and poorer kids."

  • Lower income Missouri fourth-graders perform better on national reading and math tests than the national average. But they score lower than their higher income peers, who don't exceed the national averages. 
  • Missouri students perform better on their SATs the higher their families’ income, though Missouri students well exceed the national averages regardless of income. 

The study also highlighted two key opportunity disadvantages. Missouri students have significantly less access to Advanced Placement courses than their national counterparts, and that access is lower for poorer students. Additionally, low-income Missouri students were about 20 percentage points less likely to participate in at least one extracurricular activity than their higher income counterparts.
In Illinois, the highest earning families with children earned more than their Missouri counterparts, and exceeded national averages at almost all levels. But the gap between top earners and lowest earners is growing. Since 2000, more Illinois children are growing up in low-income families or in deep poverty. Illinois also tracks the nation in the growing number of children being raised by single parents, increasingly those with a high school education or less.

Mattingly said she hopes to continue her research by analyzing state-to-state comparisons.

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