The Birth Lottery: Your Success Depends On Other People

Many people acknowledge that their success, at least in the traditional sense of upward economic mobility, is not of their own making. But most don’t realize how strong an impact external variables have on children’s outcomes. In most cases, birth and early childhood circumstances (i.e. the birth lottery), not intrinsic traits, are the leading forward indicators of success. So let’s jump in and look at the factors involved in the birth lottery:

Birth Lottery: Single Mother

1) Your parents live together, have a stable relationship, and at least one is highly involved in your upbringing.

Being raised by a single mother has a -0.764 correlation (pdf) with upward mobility. According to Raj Chetty, the study author, this factor exerts the most downward pressure on success. Another study from ChildTrends (pdf) indicates that when the two parents are in a completely happy relationship, child outcomes are considerably higher than when the parents are not very happy. Still other research shows us that, in addition to living in a happy, two-parent household, parents must be involved: “Parent involvement was a significant predictor of the child’s classroom academic performance, over and above the variance accounted for by the child’s IQ … As expected, parent involvement was a significant predictor of a child’s perception of cognitive competence and a positive student-teacher relationship, after controlling for IQ.”

School Engagement by Parental Satisfaction
2) Your parents are relatively rich.

Though the effect is small by comparison to some of the others discussed, wealth certainly plays a role in child success. Low-income children have lower vocabulary test scores, more mother-reported aggression, social withdrawal, and anxiety behavior problems, and also more interviewer-reported problems with behavior than more affluent children. As Lawrence Berger states:

One interpretation is that income fosters better home environments, which in turn produce better child outcomes. Another interpretation is that income has no causal association with children’s outcomes—and that the factors that produce better home environments and child outcomes also result in higher income levels. It is difficult to distinguish between these models with non-experimental data.

3) Your parents are educated / intelligent.

As Jen Gratz of Macalester College puts it: “Typically, parents who have finished high school and gone on to receive additional schooling understand the pressures and stresses of school and are more equipped to handle them with their children when they go through school. Parents who have obtained further educational opportunities also have less stress in their lives because they most likely making more money while spending less time making that money than those who, unfortunately, have not been able to finish high school for one reason or another.”

Another study shows us that parental effects have serious indirect effects on children’s adult educational level and occupational prestige. The main indirect effect of parental education was an increase in childhood educational aspiration, which caused children to work harder to reach their goals. Finally, some research shows us that intelligence is actually somewhat heritable; intelligent parents coupled with the right environmental variables can help a child win the birth lottery.

Heritability of Intelligence
This data shows us that intelligence is significantly heritable between parents and children.
4) You live in a good neighborhood /school system

The final factor in the birth lottery is where your family decides to live. Different areas come with different opportunities for education, friends and colleagues, and jobs, all of which influence your ability to succeed.

Broken windows theory might account for some of the indirect influences on child outcomes: “Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

If you live in a relatively nice, safe neighborhood, the chances of violence and disorder outside your home are obviously lower, which means that you have a lower chance of falling into maladaptive behavior (crime, drugs, etc.)

The heatmap below shows that the Southeast is the worst area for upward mobility. The most opportunity seems to lie in the Midwest and West, with mixed results in the Northeast and central New England. So if you live in a nice town and have two, educated, wealthy parents who love each other and invest in you, you should thank them. You owe them almost all of your success.

Birth Lottery by Location

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