Study: For poor U.S. kids, the bootstraps are tearing loose

Poor children in the U.S. face many barriers to advancement simply because they live in poverty. But new research points to another obstacle further barring the way: inequality.

The widening gap between rich and poor in America is making it harder for kids from low-income families to climb the economic ladder, according to a study from the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy.

One example: Poorer households cannot afford the type of enrichment and educational opportunities available to wealthier households. That helps explain why children from families with annual income of at least $120,000 generally score significantly higher on the SATs than kids from households earning less than $20,000, the study noted. While there was still a score gap in 1980, it was far less than what's seen today.

"What has changed the most is income inequality," Beth Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families at the university's Carsey School, told CBS MoneyWatch. "It speaks to the notion that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps. It shows that for some kids, it's really hard, and there's an inequality of opportunity to get ahead."

Income inequality in America has grown to what economist Thomas Piketty last year called "spectacular" heights.

The data is certainly sobering: The top 1 percent of Americans now take home 20 percent of all pre-tax income, or more than double their share in 1980. Middle-class and lower-income families, meanwhile, are treading water or even losing ground.

That widening income gulf is translating into a huge wealth gap, with families near the bottom of the wealth distribution ending up in debt in 2013, compared with having no wealth in 1963, a recent Urban Institute analysis found. The top 1 percent will control more than half of the world's wealth by 2014, Oxfam has predicted.

While that's frustrating to adults who feel left behind in today's economy, it's also having a detrimental impact on children. Poorer students are less likely to have access to advanced placement courses for college, for instance, and are less likely to participate in after-school activities, according to the University of New Hampshire study.

Their research coincides with a book published today Tuesday from Harvard University professor Robert Putnam called "Our Kids," that explores the reasons behind declining social mobility in the U.S. In the book, Putnam, who specializes in public policy, revisits his classmates from his high-school graduating class of 1959, who largely achieved more than their parents, and compares that with today's dwindling opportunities.

Mattingly notes that she and her colleagues were aware of Putnam's research and wanted to examine how those differences played out in each state. While she's planning additional analyses of the data, the research shows that while some states such as Colorado closely match the national income inequality trends, others have witnessed much bigger income disparities, such as Connecticut, which has many residents who work in financial services.

"We do see across the states a socioeconomic advantage," she said. "In most places, the American dream of working hard and getting ahead is much harder for parents with less status."

That's making it harder for children of poorer families to not only prepare for college, but also to pay for it once they are accepted. While college graduation rates have increased during the past few decades, most of those gains are coming from the children of high-income Americans, according to the Brookings Institution. Ivy League and other competitive colleges are also almost entirely filled with students from wealthy homes.

"Growing up in poverty has long-term life consequences," Mattingly said. "The deeper you are in poverty influences your career trajectory."

That has broader implications for the country, given that those lost opportunities can play out as higher costs to the criminal-justice system and in lost productivity, she added.

How should policy makers address the problem? By providing opportunities that are not tied to parental resources, such as universal early childhood education and more equitable funding of schools, she said. Now, Mattingly added, "resources tend to go those that generate them."