Do you want to help children in North Carolina? Pay their parents more money for their work. Long-term, substantive, positive increases in income for parents make for happier, more successful children.
A recently published study of children and families in Western North Carolina just proved—rather by accident—the immense and long-term effects of an increase in household income on children living in the house.
Twenty years in the making, the Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth originally intended to study behavioral and mental health traits observed in children living in low-income households. But then, something unexpected happened four years into the study. One-quarter of the subjects in the study were part of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who built a casino on tribal lands. With Tribal citizens receiving shares of the profits, each adult citizen saw their income rise by $4,000 per year, roughly a 20 percent increase.
This increase in income enabled the researchers to study first-hand income’s impact on behavioral and emotional disorders, making the study the first of its kind. “It would be almost impossible to replicate this kind of longitudinal study,” Randall Akee, one of the authors, told the Washington Post. “Especially for a sample this large.”
To collect the data for the study, which began in 1993, 1,420 children (ages 9, 11, and 13) from Western North Carolina and Eastern Cherokee Tribal Land were surveyed each year until the children were 16, and then they were re-interviewed at 19 and 21. Akee and colleagues designed the survey to “assess mental health and well-being in children,” and they worked to “identify psychiatric, behavioral, and emotional disorders.”
The study discovered that the positive change in income for the Eastern Cherokee children “was hugely important to the development of the children, to their wellbeing,” according to Akee. “And the effect wasn’t small either—it was actually fairly large.”
Children who saw their household income increase by this substantial amount experienced fewer emotional disorders or behavioral disorders than the counterparts in the study. These changes were even more substantial for the children who were initially seen to be lagging behind the most.
These same children also saw a huge jump in conscientiousness and agreeableness, along with a slight uptick in neuroticism, traits frequently associated with positive outcomes. Emilia Simeonova, one of the co-authors, told the Washington Post, “There are very powerful correlations between conscientiousness and agreeableness and the ability to hold a job, to maintain a steady relationship. The two allow for people to succeed socially and professionally.”
Akee and colleagues attribute these improvements to a number of factors. Parental stress decreased due to the significant increase in income. While the time that parents spent with their children did not alter substantially, the study suggests that the “improvement in interactions alone” made a strong impact on the children’s emotional wellbeing. Also, some of the families who received the $4,000 income increase moved their families to areas with slightly higher median incomes, which may also have influenced these positive outcomes.
With this increase in household income, there are also community-wide improvements. Just last week, The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opened an $80 million dollar hospital on Tribal lands.
One in 4 children in North Carolina is food insecure. Their parents and caregivers are forced every day to make impossible choices: heat or food; stay home with a sick child or keep a job. Unemployment in North Carolina is at nearly 6 percent. And the programs that the state does have in place to help children in need still reflect austerity budgets that date back to the recession.
This study offered a unique opportunity to see what real and lasting effects long-term economic well-being can have on children. With the insight that this study provides, what can we do to help improve the lives of families living in poverty throughout North Carolina?