The Intersection of Race and Socioeconomic Status (SES) in Early Family Life: Why Do the Academic Returns to SES Differ for Black and White Children?
Daphne Henry

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship

Award Year



niversity of Pittsburgh

Primary Discipline

The Black-White achievement gap appears early in childhood, persists into adolescence, and undermines the future well-being of Black children. Gaps in academic skills drive much of today’s continuing Black-White disparities in wages, schooling, employment, and poverty. Black children are more likely to grow up in disadvantaged families; thus, it’s tempting to lay the origins of the Black-White test score gap at the feet of the socioeconomic adversity Black families confront. However, the interplay between SES and race is more complex. First, racial achievement disparities often persist after taking family SES into account. Second, the size of Black-White performance gaps vary by social class, with the largest disparities evident among the highest-SES students in middle and high school. Lastly, recent research shows that income’s associations with cognitive skills differ for Black and White youth. What remains unclear is why the academic returns to SES differ by race. Increasing evidence suggests that racial disparities in proximity to multiple forms of (dis)advantage and corresponding inequalities in access to social, cultural, and economic resources may help explain why Black and White children do not reap similar rewards from family socioeconomic advantage. Yet little research has investigated these pathways.This mixed-methods project therefore has four research aims. Study 1 uses nationally representative data from a cohort of students who entered kindergarten in 2010 to (1) investigate whether and how race moderates the relations between family SES (i.e., family income and parental educational attainment) and academic skills at school entry, and (2) assess whether Black-White differences in proximity to community (dis)advantage, parenting behaviors and attitudes, and family routines explain why the association between SES and achievement varies for Black and White children. Study 2 collects survey, interview, and observational data from a stratified sample of low-, middle-, and high-income Black and White families to (3) explore within-SES racial disparities in proximity to intergenerational, spatial, and relational (dis)advantage and in access to social capital, cultural capital, and wealth, and (4) investigate within-SES racial differences in young children’s developmental contexts that may be attributable to these disparities. Together, these studies will enhance understanding of the independent and interactive associations between race, family SES, and early academic skills, elucidate the pathways through which nearness to (dis)advantage influences young children’s development, and inform a novel conceptual model of how race and SES intersect to shape early family life.
About Daphne Henry
Daphne Henry is a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also completed a B.A. in history. Her research investigates how socioeconomic status (SES) and race/ethnicity intersect to shape children’s cognitive and academic development in early childhood. Specifically, she examines the origin and trajectory of achievement disparities between SES-matched Black and White children as well as the factors that foment within-SES racial skills gaps. Ultimately, her research aims to delineate how differences in early formative experiences promote disparities in school readiness and long-term educational outcomes. Daphne’s work is interdisciplinary and incorporates theoretical insights and empirical evidence from developmental psychology, sociology, and economics to understand the underlying processes that produce racial and socioeconomic disparities in family life and child development. She is the recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and an American Psychological Foundation Elizabeth Munsterberg Koppitz Graduate Student Fellowship.

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