In sum, the support for learning that characterizes young children 's home environments is strongly associated with both their cognitive development and their family's socioeconomic niche. As with maternal mental health, therefore, improving the literacy and learning environment of the home offers a potentially promising focus for efforts to promote early learning in poor families. The challenge, as illustrated by our review of parenting interventions (see Chapter 9 and Chapter 13), is finding effective approaches to accomplishing this goal.
The past quarter-century has produced many changes—some favorable, many not—in families' time, money, education, and other socioeconomic resources. Income inequality has increased, producing both more poverty and more affluence among families with young children. The average parental schooling level has increased. More young children are growing up in single-parent homes, and many more mothers with young children now hold full-time jobs than before. Finally, more children are growing up in poverty today than was the case 25 years ago.
These trends hold both the promise of improved child well-being and the risk of increased problems. Their effect on an individual child will depend on the mix of positive and negative influences affecting his or her own family. Their effect on this generation of young children will depend on the broader landscape of how many children are affected by which influences, and what steps society takes in response to them. On balance, however, the evidence suggests that while improved maternal education may have modestly positive effects on early development, the effects of shifting family structures and, to an even greater extent, of maternal employment will depend on a number of accompanying conditions. However, the persistent economic hardship that affects so many children is likely to be highly detrimental, especially during the earliest years of life.
If confirmed in future research, this evidence that poverty during the early childhood years is especially harmful suggests that tax and transfer policies affecting family economic status should pay much more attention to improving families' incomes while children are young. The emerging evidence from welfare reform experiments suggests, however, that the success of such efforts (when the criteria for success emphasize the well-being of young children) may hinge on simultaneously linking families and children to early intervention and mental health services. Nevertheless, because many children growing up in poverty become productive adults, it is most accurate to portray low socioeconomic status as reducing the chances of success rather than leading inevitably to diminished attainments.
We found suggestive associations, but little strong evidence, that an