Project Summary

This project seeks to delineate the fundamental family and neighborhood processes through which income inequality is translated to children’s early learning and skills in the current generation of US children. Specifically, we seek to:

  • create, test, and refine a comprehensive, multidisciplinary conceptual model of the key contextual forces driving the transmission of income inequality to children’s academic skill from early through middle childhood

  • combine data from multiple national data sources and use pioneering GIS mapping techniques to rigorously validate measures of salient neighborhood resources and stressors, creating an integrated, multi-level, multi-methods dataset

  • use cutting-edge analytic techniques and a developmental framework to delineate how key family and neighborhood resource and stress processes give rise to economic disparities in specific arenas of children’s skills at particular developmental periods.


This study developed a unique integrated dataset drawn from a broad array of sources. We drew data from two leading longitudinal studies of nationally-representative samples of children, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Birth Cohort and Kindergarten Cohort 2011 to document children’s development from infancy through fifth grade. Information on resource and stress processes were drawn from the longitudinal studies as well as from a broad array of national administrative data sources, leading to an innovative and expansive view of proximal processes linking income to children’s development. Analyses incorporate innovative mapping technologies and careful, multistage descriptive, econometric, and growth modeling strategies to address concerns of selection bias. 

Key Findings

  • Socioeconomic status (SES) gaps in children's science and math skills grow during early elementary school, driven in part by in-home and out-of-home learning activities, while gaps in reading skills remain stable (Coley, Kruzik & Votruba-Drzal, 2020).

  • Lower income children's restrained access to community educational and cultural resources and heightened exposure to neighborhood poverty and violent crime, which are associated with lower emotional support and cognitive stimulation from parents, help to explain such children's lower academic and behavioral skills at kindergarten entry (Coley, Spielvogel, Kruzik, Miller, Betancur, & Votruba-Drzal, 2021). 

  • In comparison to preschool age children, elementary school age children are more likely to show disparities in cognitive skills directly associated with neighborhood conditions including neighborhood poverty and availability of cultural and educational resources (Votruba-Drzal, Miller, Betancur, Spielvogel, Kruzik, & Coley, 2020).





Principal Investigators

Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal

Professor, University of Pittsburgh

Project Support

The National Science Foundation

Project Timeline

7/1/2019 — Present