Summary of the new study “Inequalities from the earliest age”.

The synthesis

Gaps from the earliest age determine the future of those children living in conditions of poverty

The burden of poverty is measured from the earliest age. The gaps between poor children – of whom there are 900,000 – and other children are observed very early on in two key dimensions of development:

  • Cognitive development, which refers to the different areas of competency needed to learn at school. Linguistic, pre-mathematical and psycho-social skills are all marked by significant gaps from an early age.
  • The physical and mental health of children overexposed to risk factors (dietary deficiencies, pollution, stress, etc.) appears to be more fragile than that of children from affluent backgrounds.

Through these differences in cognitive development and health problems, what is at stake here is a loss of “chances” for the future, as the analyses underline the predictive aspect of these elements on academic success, professional success and future well-being.

How to explain these disparities, which widen from an early age ?

A first factor, now widely documented, is the low use of formal childcare facilities (mainly childminders and nurseries) by the most disadvantaged children: 30% use them, compared with 80% of children from the richest families, according to the OECD. This finding has far-reaching consequences: studies show that access to a nursery reduces the gap in language development by around 30% between children at the bottom and those at the top of the social ladder.

If 30% of language development gaps can be eliminated by access to formal childcare, what about the remaining 70%? They are linked to the parental environment. In other words, experiences within the parental environment are the most decisive factors in a child’s development. This parental environment, marked by precariousness, is above all a constrained environment: a limited budget dedicated to food, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies, fewer objects (books, toys, etc.) that encourage the child’s development, less time available for parents who have to deal with the urgency of daily life, etc. This is the yardstick by which we measure our children’s development. It’s in the light of these constraints that we need to analyze parental practices that, at first glance, seem less conducive to children’s development: less reading time, fewer shared activities with children, a greater emphasis on screens, etc. In this respect, one of our most important convictions is that children’s development is not always encouraged by their parents. In this respect, one of the strong convictions acquired as a result of this work is as follows: if poor parents act as they do, it’s often because they can’t apply the “recommended” practices, and not because they don’t know what those practices are. Consequently, the challenge of supporting parents is not so much to upgrade their knowledge of parenting as to reduce the various stigmas of poverty that disrupt parenting.

If poor parents act like this, it's often because they can't apply the ``recommended`` practices, not because they don't know what they're supposed to do.

Public policies that lack ambition

Relegated to the background, far behind childcare and social assistance (notably family allowances), support for parenthood appears to be the poor relation of family policies. Our study of the social support schemes piloted by the CNAF (Caisse Nationale d’Assurance Familiale) – LAEP (Lieux d’Accueil Enfants-Parents), REAAP (Réseaux d’Ecoute d’Appui et d’Accompagnement des Parents), Family Mediation – leads to two conclusions. Firstly, the scale of these services is very limited: LAEP, for example, covers only 4% of families with a child under 6. This is the logical consequence of the very low level of funding in this area: €74 million for LAEPs, REEAPs and family mediation, compared with the €15 billion dedicated to childcare.

Secondly, although few data are available, these schemes reach (very) few of the most disadvantaged, who don’t see them as a response to their basic needs in the short term. The qualitative study we were able to carry out with 40 families living in poverty confirms this: access to rights, housing, employment and childcare are the needs expressed first and foremost by parents who only want their children to be happy and successful.

Beyond the social support systems, we would like to highlight the important role played by medical prevention through the activities of the PMI (Protection Maternelle Infantile) which, with 4800 free “points of contact” and multi-disciplinary teams, is a key player in supporting vulnerable households. Unfortunately, its preventive role has gradually been eroded : 30% to 40% of missions carried out are related to other issues (accreditation of childminders, supervision of licensed professionals, etc.), and the role played by some PMI in investigating information of concern tends to create mistrust among the most vulnerable. Reinforcing the preventive role of PMI by ensuring a relationship of trust with disadvantaged households seems to us to be a key issue in supporting parents and reducing the risk of widening gaps with the most privileged households.

An inspiring but fragile network of associations

The first striking feature of our review of associations working in this field is their relative fragility. There are relatively few solidly structured national players, unlike in the field of work integration, for example. Here again, this can be seen as a consequence of the low level of public funding in this field.

Secondly, the associative fabric is highly fragmented, with several thousand associations claiming to be active in the field of parenting support. To clarify the modalities of action of each actor, we have constructed a typology that distinguishes three types of actors:

  • Projects aimed at empowering parents – in the image of the activities developed by Centres Sociaux.
  • Projects aimed at strengthening the parent-child bond – like the activities developed by LAEPs.
  • Projects aimed at equipping parents – such as activities developed by associations promoting parental reading or language development The analysis of associative projects to support parenthood has enabled us to identify two priorities for strengthening support for parents living in poverty :

These two levers - accessibility and appropriate support - are the two strategic objectives of our recommendations.

1. The development of accessibility strategies to make their actions “attractive” and reach the poorest.

2. Adapting the support provided to the living conditions of the families living in poverty.

These two levers – accessibility and adapted support – are the two strategic objectives of our recommendations.

Five recommendations for a game-changer

The main feature of our recommendations is that they target people living in situations of poverty more systematically. The logic developed here is that of proportionate universalism, addressing everyone but responding to the needs of those who face the greatest difficulties. We make five recommendations which, while primarily addressed to the public authorities, require the support of private players, sponsors and associations.

1. Reduce the financial constraints and level of deprivation of vulnerable households.
2. Create a supply shock to increase access to formal childcare for the poorest.
3. Reinforce access to PMI for the most vulnerable and adapt their support.
4. Strengthen the capacity of associations to support vulnerable groups in their parenting.
5. Make inequalities in early childhood a priority issue for public policy.

We are calling for a necessary change of scale in support for parenthood, the cornerstone of any policy aimed at restoring France’s social ladder. So that a poor child born in our country does not automatically become a poor adult.

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Crédit photo : RfStudio – Pexels