Early Childhood Education

Socioeconomic Status (SES)


Socioeconomic status (SES) is commonly used in the early childhood field to describe the social class level of an individual or family, typically taking into account income, accumulated wealth and assets, and educational background. This article summarizes the definitions and measurement of SES, as well as the implications of SES for early childhood development and policy implications for early care and education (ECE).


Definition and Measurement

There is no standard definition or formula for defining SES. Income, wealth, and educational background are typically used to calculate SES level, and can be defined as annual income, monetary value of assets, and formal educational degrees. In much of the research that utilizes this variable, statistical procedures control for effects of SES in order to measure the effects of another variable, such as a treatment in an experimental design. Because SES has many implications for child outcomes, it is also important to consider as a source of influence. Historical and cultural contexts help determine the appropriateness of the various scales used to measure SES. For example, in the nineteenth century few Americans had college degrees, making the use of formal degrees as an educational scale inappropriate for this time period. Similarly, using an American asset or income scale would be an inappropriate measure of SES in another country.

Because income and educational attainment are positively correlated, this measure works in most circumstances. However, certain circumstances or occupations can create problems for measuring SES, such as the temporary status of graduate student or clergymen who are well-educated but generally low- income. Researchers and demographers must be careful to state their definition of SES in their studies, and readers must be cautious when making comparisons and generalizing across contexts.

The concepts of poverty and SES often overlap but are defined differently. Poverty is calculated using absolute income whereas SES is measured relative to others. Educational level can be measured using formal degrees (e.g., a bachelor’s or master’s) or by other variables, such as the number of books in the home. The federal poverty line in the United States is a specific dollar threshold, defined as the amount of money required to adequately feed a family for a year (as determined by the United States Department of Agriculture) multiplied by three. In 2005, the U.S. poverty level for a family of four was $19,350. If a family’s income falls below this threshold, the family is considered poor. If a family’s income falls below 200 percent of the poverty line ($38,700 for a family of four in 2005), the family is considered low-income. Compared with income, SES is generally a more stable measure across time. While income may change drastically each year, SES takes into account more constant variables such as educational attainment and accumulated wealth.



Educational attainment. Eighty percent of the U.S. population over age 25 have graduated from high school, and about one-quarter hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Less than 10 percent of the population holds a postgraduate degree (master’s, professional, or doctorate degrees).


Income. In 2004, the median annual household income in the United States was $44,473. For the most part, the income distribution is concentrated in the middle. In 2000, 12 percent of the U.S. population had annual household incomes of $100,000 or more while 16 percent had incomes less than $15,000.


Characteristics of Low-SES children. Demographers and researchers, including the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) have found that a large and increasing number of children in the United States live in low-SES homes. The likelihood of living in lower-SES families varies according to children’s age, ethnicity, family structure, and geography. Young children are even more at risk of living in poverty. In 2005 nearly 20 percent of children under age six lived below the poverty line. In 2000 the NCCP reported that the poverty rate for children under three was found to be 80 percent higher than the rate for adults. Black and Hispanic children are more likely to live in lower-income households than Asian or white children. In addition, single-parent households and families with young parents are significantly more likely to be low-income. Southern and western states in the United States have higher rates of childhood poverty than northern or eastern states.


The Implications of Low Socioeconomic Status

Low-SES home environments tend to be less stimulating for young children than mid- and upper-SES homes, often due to a lack of resources or education. Several studies have investigated the impacts of socioeconomic status on children’s development (for reviews, see Brooks-Gunn and Duncan, 1997, and McLloyd, 1998). Children in low-SES homes are at greater risk for inadequate nutrition and obesity, cognitive developmental delays and inadequate health care, increased exposure to environmental toxins such as lead (Evans, 2004), and a higher incidence of and exposure to abuse or neglect. Parents with income below the poverty line tend to be less responsive to their young children and use more punitive parenting techniques than those with income above. In addition, lower family income may lead to living in neighborhoods with higher crime rates, inadequately funded schools, and fewer resources for child development. Research has linked neighborhood influences with parenting practices and child outcomes. Several studies suggest that, in the long term, family income may have negative implications for adolescent well-being, particularly cognitive outcomes and school achievement.

Early care and education options are limited for low-income families, largely due to their high cost, and the few options available to low-SES families tend to be low-quality. In child care centers that serve low-income families, caregivers tend to display less warmth and responsiveness to children, and speak to children in more authoritarian ways than caregivers in centers serving middle- and upper- income families. Low-SES families are more likely to use informal child care (i.e., family, friend, and neighbor care or kith and kin care), which is unregulated and often low-quality.


Socioeconomic Status and Early Care and Education

Because of the few options available to low-SES families, public early care and education programs have been developed to serve low-income children. Head Start is a federal program established in the 1960s to provide preschool services to low-income families, and Early Head Start was developed more recently to serve low-income infants and toddlers. The recent wave of state universal prekindergarten programs has expanded services to more children. Child care subsidies help low-income families afford early care and education programs, and have been significantly increased to better serve more families since welfare reform in 1996.

Research has shown that high quality early care and education experiences can mitigate the negative effects of low SES (for reviews, see Barnett, 1998; De- vaney et al., 1997). In the short term, participation in Head Start can enhance children’s cognitive, social, and physical development. Long-term effects of intensive, high quality early childhood programs, such as the High/Scope Perry Preschool and the Abecedarian Project, include higher rates of high school graduation and reductions in the use of special education services in addition to enduring social benefits such as increased labor market productivity and higher taxable earnings. Children from low-SES families show greater gains than children from middle- and upper-SES homes when provided with high-quality early care and education.

While public early childhood programs are important to and beneficial for low-income children, children from the working poor class are often caught in the middle—unable to afford high-quality care but ineligible for public options. In addition, targeted programs further segregate low-SES children. As a result, six states have recently established universal prekindergarten programs or are moving toward universal access for all children, regardless of SES.

In addition to providing or subsidizing direct ECE services, the SES of children and their ECE providers has policy implications. Policy makers must consider provider’s SES when creating trainings. Low-SES providers may not have the funds to attend trainings, or may lack Internet access for on-line courses. In addition, the match in SES between provider and child has implications for home-school relations; families and their early childhood teachers must be able to relate and successfully communicate with each other.

Although there is no standard definition of socioeconomic status, recent research emphasizes the importance of SES for children’s development. Living in low-SES homes is a risk factor for young children, affecting physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development. However, these effects can be partially mitigated by early interventions that include high quality early care and education. Considering the large numbers of American children living in low-income homes, the expansion of high-quality early care and education programs is necessary to ensure that all young children have a healthy start in life. See also Preschool/Prekindergarten Programs.

Further Readings: Barnett, W. S. (1998). Long-term effects on cognitive development and school success. In W. S. Barnett and S. S. Boocock, eds., Early care and education for children in poverty. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 1144; Brooks-Gunn, J., and G. Duncan (1997). The effects of poverty on children. The Future of Children 7(2), 55-71; DeNavas-Walt, C., B. D. Proctor, and R. J. Mills (August 2004). Income, poverty, and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2003. United States Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce. Available online at http://www.census.gov/prod/2004pubs/p60-226.pdf; Devaney, B. L., M. R. Ellwood, J. M. Love (1997). Programs that mitigate the effects on poverty for children. The Future of Children 7(2), 88-112; Evans, G. W. (2004). The environment of childhood poverty. American Psychologist 59(2), 77-92; Helburn, S. W., and B. R. Bergmann (2002). America's child care problem. New York: Palgrave; Hsien-Hen, L., and H. Koball (August 2003). Living on the edge: The changing demographics of low-income families and their children. National Center for Children in Poverty, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. Available online at http://nccp.org/media/lat03d-text.pdf; McLloyd, V. C. (1998). Socioeconomic disadvantage and child development. American Psychologist 53, 185204; National Center for Children in Poverty. (2002). Early childhood poverty: A statistical profile. Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. Available online at http://nccp.org/media/ecp02-text.pdf.

Taryn W. Morrissey